“RENT” North Bay premiere, 6th Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
(Photo by Eric Chazankin)

Like a rowdy good friend, the rock opera “RENT” at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse has shortcomings that are easy to forgive. The songs are so memorable and the characters are so bright that you gladly take them home with you. It’s well worth seeing, and seeing again.

Set in New York City’s Lower East Side, “RENT” is a year in the life of a coterie of impoverished young artists who come face-to-face with starvation, drug addiction, AIDS, love and death. The characters - dancers, filmmakers and musicians both gay and straight - are clearly all in it together. Inspired by Puccini’s “La Boheme”, the story highlights the frustration of dreams thwarted by a society that values empty commercial gain over artistic expression. But the performers inspire us to find the joy of Living in the Moment, a joy that is contagious and effervesces throughout.

It’s an understatement to say the Broadway run of “RENT” was a smash hit. Its opening in February 1996 in the East Village was such a sensation that two months later it moved to larger digs at the Nederlander Theater on Broadway, and there it stayed for an incredible 12 years. With music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, who sadly did not live to see its huge success, “RENT” won not only four Tony Awards, but the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Some pretty good stuff, indeed.

In its North Bay premiere, “RENT” at 6th Street Playhouse has a fine cast that works well as an ensemble in big choral numbers like “Seasons of Love”, but results can be uneven in a few individual performances. Some of the leads take the necessary risks to bring their characters to life; others don’t go quite far enough. It hits the ground running with a high-octane opening number “Tune Up”. The company is led by Robert K Dornaus III as aspiring filmmaker Mark Cohen, and Tyler Costin as rock musician hopeful Roger Davis. Their show-quality voices are used to good effect. Costin in particular is highly watchable, bringing exuberance to his role tempered by a sense of mortality. Michael J. Bulatao, who plays computer whiz Tom Collins, has a fine voice as showcased in the musical number “Santa Fe” but his character could use more sensitivity and strength.

Daniel Schultz as the lovable transvestite Angel has the very heart of the story and wears it well. He sings, dances and acts with unforgettable style and panache. Stephanie St James as exotic dancer Mimi delivers sensuality in a distinctive, throaty voice, especially in her duets with Costin, but the smoke lacks fire, and she seems restrained in her dance. Sonya Distel is a strong presence as lesbian producer Joanne Jefferson, and really shines in “Tango Maureen”, her ironic duet with Dornaus.

Speaking of Maureen…an absolute standout is Shannon Rider Urquhart as the sultry performance artist, whose entrance on a motorcycle stops the show. She flirts relentlessly with everyone in sight, including the audience. Her “Over the Moon” is a tour-de-force. The rest of the ensemble company deserves special mention for their fine support through song and dance. Some of them have truly outstanding voices and spectacular moves.

Kudos is also due to the four-piece band. Discreetly tucked upstage behind the set, they make a noteworthy contribution to a challenging score, which ranges from blazing rock to touching ballads to Broadway melodies.

Director David Lear’s staging and blocking lack a certain originality in some spots, given the potential of the material, but the results are fun to watch nonetheless. Choreography by Alia Curchack-Beeton takes no chances and appears borrowed in places, but does the job well. Scenic and lighting design by John M. Connole provide a multi-tasking set with the necessary raw warehouse industrial look essential to the story. Technical issues with head mics, sound and lighting haunted the show and are probably fixable, but are a disappointment in an opening night performance.

Despite its problems, “RENT” at 6th Street is a success. The energy stays high, and by the finale the audience is on its feet singing, dancing and clapping to the music. You’ll find yourself unable to forget this show, humming the songs days later at unexpected moments. If you need a good party, go see it and bring your friends.

When: Performances May 29 to June 27, 2010
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2:00 p.m. Saturdays & Sundays
Tickets: $15 to $35
Location: 6th Street Playhouse – GK Hardt Theatre, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com