Keeping busy, that’s my new mantra! In the wake of, well, everything that done gone down recently (about which I shall not trouble ye here, gentle reader), your old pal the Visitor has a fervent need to keep his hands occupied with some good honest work…or, not finding that, some theatre work, which is even better. Lucky for me it’s January, and January brings the wile-eyed hooligans of Sock’n’Buskin Theatre out of hiding to cause some much-needed winter mischief at the Kailash Mital Theatre on Carleton Campus. This sounded swell to me so, with galpal superstar Rebecca by my side, we trekked on out to see what the Sockies had planned for their first show of 2014.
That show was the musical smash-phenom-thingamajig RENT from Jonathon Larson. The show is a kind of lower East side update to the classic opera LA BOHEME, which oddly enough I have actually seen. But I never did see RENT, so this was one I was anxious to check out. The Sockies’ last musical, ROCKY HORROR, was an absolute blast and a half. And they even brought the director of that show, Geoff Burnside, back for this one.
The show honors its Opera inspired Bohemian roots as we follow a trio of would-be couples and various misfits through a year in their penniless but passionate lives in the slums of New York. At the heart of it all is our central sort-of everyman Mark (Elijah Mucciaco), an amateur videographer trying to record everything around him with the help of his roommate and best pal Roger (Jordan King). Roger is a struggling musician who, to me at least, bears a wonderfully striking resemblance to Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, and from the looks of his life at the moment he should have stayed in the Mystery Machine. No job, no cash, reeling from a recent tragedy, and now his former buddy and current landlord Benny (Tim Baretto-Burns, wonderfully smarmy) has turned on him and Mark, threatening them with eviction.
Enter Mimi (Ciara Roberts), a dancer and drug addict, into Roger’s life and things really get rolling. Their rocky, stop and start relationship carries on alongside the relative bliss of Collins (David Shiff) and his Angel (Alex Brunjes, being terribly fabulous as the heart of gold drag queen), and the nonstop fireworks of Mark’s performance artist ex Maureen (Annie King-Smith) and her straight laced lady love Joanne (Stephanie Hughes). We watch their fights and foibles and falls and, with the help of an onstage band (musical direction courtesy of Chris Santillan), we get to hear them sing about all this madness.
RENT is a good fun production but I’ll be honest…I thought it got off to a bit of a shaky start. I spent a lot of the first act not quite convinced by the production, despite some consistently strong work from Jordan King as Roger and Ciara Roberts as Mimi. Mucciaco and Hughes likewise have a terrific duet in the first act, the Tango Maureen…and Maureen herself is a grand shock to the system when Annie King-Smith explodes into the story with a voice that sounded like it was bellowing forth from some nearby giant (girl got PIPES, dig). But still, overall it felt a bit shaky.
But the second act, the second act…oh, my. Worth the price of admission all by itself, resetting the bar high right from the get go with a terrific full cast production of the showstopper Seasons of Love. In the words of galpal Rebecca, a lady who knows her some Rent, “They OWNED dat shit!” Everyone in the cast collectively stepped up their game in act 2 with gorgeous number after number, and a couple of genuinely tear-inducing moments, most notably from David Shiff in a reprise of the first act’s Cover You that was an eye-opener for me. Everything hit right up to the emotional finale, and I left with a nice silly smile on my face. In the end, the Sockies quite obviously poured their collective hearts into this show, and that will win me over every damn time. RENT is a fun show indeed with some talented folks on stage, and while not perfect, its huge heart is in the perfect place. And speaking of heart, and from recent experience…support student theatre, willya? You’d miss it if it wasn’t here. Peace, love and soul,
Kevin Reid, the Visitor (and Winston)