RENT at Musical Theatre West

When it first opened on Broadway in 1996, Rent quickly became a welcome sight for an institution that was becoming dated and bland. It also became the vehicle that opened up the door that allowed the unimaginative and, yes… bland jukebox musical to dominate the Great White Way. So the question is, did Broadway learn anything from this landmark and important piece of musical theatre? Apparently, not. For twelve years Jonathan Larson’s seminal rock opera, based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème showed us what Broadway could really be. Along the way, Rent picked up an avid group of followers affectionately known as RENT-heads who will follow it no matter where it goes.

On September 7, 2008, Rent closed after 5,124 performances and placing it as the 8th longest running show on Broadway. Without even mentioning the four Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the other countless awards it has garnered, Rent has definitely touched a nerve with audiences. Has it been around long enough to have jumped the shark?

The answer could easily be a resounding “yes.” However, Musical Theatre West has been given the honor of being the first professional regional theatre company to produce their own production of this musical. The result is a refreshing and inspiring breath of life to a show that celebrates the “No Day But Today” credo that resonates throughout the play. Director Nick Degruccio pays homage to the original production while deftly incorporating his own vision that focuses on the character’s relationships to one another. The band on stage sounds great as ever with Michael Paternostro in the Musical Director seat. The set, provided by Plan B Entertainment is a scaled down version of the original with some inspiring additions that allow the characters to move and interact in a way they’ve never been able to do.

The cast, however, is the reason to see this show for the first time or the 30+ times (as is the case for this reviewer.) It’s always fun to see talented actor take on the Joanne/Maureen dynamic and add their own spin on the characters. Callie Carson is bigger than life and wonderfully joyous. Nicole Tillman’s Joanne is a perfect match as the straight-arrow lesbian wholly in love with Maureen’s wild spirit. Jai Rodriguez is absolute heaven to watch as the tender, loving AIDS-ridden cross-dressing Angel. He is the glue that holds this makeshift family together and Rodriguez is just the right actor to portray him with humor and poignancy. Mel Rovert is extremely convincing and moving as Tom Collins, Angel’s lover – especially in ACT II. Sabrina Sloan’s Mimi Marquez is brash and full of life and able to belt out a resounding version of “Out Tonight.” Her love interest, however, left a lot to be desired – not so much in the vocal department, but more so in P.J. Griffith’s Iggy Pop/Keith Richards portrayal of Roger. The way he slinks along the stage distracts from the core of emotion that defines Roger. Luckily, the principal cast and the rest of the talented company are able to carry him through and he is able to connect emotionally with Sloan in Act II. Beau Hirshfield’s Mark effectively portrays Mark Cohen, the lonely filmmaker trying to create a family of his own in New York City with this group of bohemians trying to make it on their own despite the obstacles they must face.

The themes of youth, death, life and love still resound within the hardcore fans in attendance on opening night. It’s testimony to Jonathan Larson’s legacy that compelled him to write this musical. Musical Theatre West could not have been a better choice to kick off the new life that Rent will enjoy at a regional level. Not all productions will be great, but at least this first one has set the standard for what it should be – it may well have surpassed even the original production, if not at least matched it on all levels.

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Little Shop of Horrors at Musical Theatre West

That lovable mean green man-eating plant that reigned supreme in one of the longest and most popular crowd-pleasing Off Broadway musical has landed in Long Beach in a sleek, off beat, and thoroughly entertaining production since the revival touring company hit Los Angeles just a few years back directly from Broadway.

That Musical Theatre West’s production of Little Shop of Horrors closely resembles that production is not an accident and it is not necessarily a liability.

Sets, costumes, and the puppets are modeled after that successful run and Michael A. Shepperd, also Artistic Director of Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles, reprises his 2003 Broadway role as the voice of Audrey II.

Martin P. Robinson’s original 1982 Audrey II designs (this time by way of the Jim Henson Creature shop) are also featured with no less than four incarnations of the blood-thirsty creature from outer space.

A down and out florist’s assistant, Seymour Krelborn (Danny Gurwin) suddenly finds success, fame, and the girl when he discovers an exotic plant that turns out to be a little more than he bargained for. As with any story of sudden fame and success-it comes with a high price and for Seymour it comes in the form of this blood sucking plant that demands fresh meat in order to thrive.

Prominently displayed at Mr. Muschnik’s (Stuart Pankin) skid row flower shop, Seymour garners not only attention from everyone, but also from his co-worker, Audrey (Lowe Taylor) who’s taste in men includes a masochistic rebel motorcycle dentist (Peter Paige).

The opening number (“Little Shop of Horrors”), as sung by a Greek Chorus of three street urchins (Meloney Collins, Frederika Meek, and Kamilah Marshall) with names from 1950s girl groups is the weakest element in the show with a stiff choreographed number (choregraphy by DJ Gray).

However, by the next number (“Skid Row/Downtown”), they recover completely and maintain a strong hold through the end. Gurwin is ideal as the loveable but nerdy Seymour, with a robust voice and Taylor absolutely steals the show with the signature musical number, “Somewhere That’s Green.”

Queer as Folk veteran, Peter Paige is also hilarious as the demented Dr. Orin Scrivello, DDS and various other characters.

As a whole, the cast is magnificent in Howard Ashman (lyrics) and Alan Menken’s (music) 50’s R&B, do-wop score of a horror spoof. Director (and Associate Artistic Director of MTW) Steven Glaudini’s fun pacing keeps the show moving along to the music while the colorful sets and costumes from the original Broadway revival production enhance the experience to bring a truly enjoyable musical back to the Los Angeles area.

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