RENT at South Pointe High School

There’s a reason I added “at South Pointe High School” to the title of this review of The Edge Theatre Company’s opening weekend of RENT… The production, staged in the auditorium of the high school, has large “SPHS” letters over the stage. It set the tone for the performance, and was never far from my mind during the show.

This is a small production company in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and it took on the audacious task of staging the Southeast’s regional premier of RENT, finally available for licensing outside of Broadway and the national tours. The play, of course, is widely credited with changing musical theatre when it opened in 1996. Through the 12-year run on Broadway and countless tours around the country and the world, the show has touched countless millions and helped inspire a new generation of musical theatre.

This is not that show.

Though I had initial misgivings about the stage itself — scaled down dramatically from productions in professional theatres, due to a much smaller stage and I’m sure a very small budget — I eventually came to accept the new vision. The Edge Theatre Company made creative use of their limited resources, and it ended up working.

The small orchestra did a commendable job performing the well-known songs from this rock opera, setting the tone for a head bobbing, toe tapping, thrilling unveiling of the story.

The sound production was awful — there was static, pops, and crackles throughout the show. Actors’ microphones worked intermittently, but would cut off in places. And if the sound techs were making any effort to compensate for actors’ frequent shifts in volume, we sure couldn’t tell in the audience. Singers alternated between nearly inaudible and overwhelming.

Most unfortunate of all, the actors (overall) quite simply failed to deliver a consistent performance.

I’m torn, because I have a lot of very specific things about individual actors that I want to share. As I watched the performance unfold, I found myself critiquing each performer one on one, comparing them to several professional actors I’d seen in probably 8-10 performances, including some in New York City and tours in Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina. It’s impossible, of course, for a long-time theatre patron to watch such an iconic show without having some expectations for each character, and I had a lot to say about each.

But then when I was leaving, I realized that I needed to revise my approach. When I walked in (just minutes before curtain — I didn’t realize it was going to be a 45-minute drive from Center City) there were no full programs available, so I didn’t see the cast bios until AFTER the show. It was then I realized why so much of this show felt like a high school musical: many of the cast are IN high school, or have recently graduated.

As with my recent review of West Side Story, I’m not going to call out teenage actors by name and say negative things about them. Yes, young actors are still growing in their craft, and they’re much less likely to take criticism constructively and try to grow from it. (The ongoing controversy among high school actors from WSS is proof that theatre education around here isn’t doing a good job of preparing students for less than glowing reviews) Still, I can’t in good conscience write a review that isn’t clear and direct.

So here’s my standard compromise: I’ll tell you aspects of individual actors’ performances that I liked, and then give you a more general view of how I felt about certain scenes. That’s as generous as I can be, because in the end, this isn’t marketed as a high school play, it’s a professional theatre company selling tickets to the general public.

Jonathan Hoskins, who I was surprised to discover was a 16 year-old approaching his junior year of high school, did a good job of embodying the character of Mark. His mannerisms, his movements, his speech, all really helped you perceive the actor as someone other than himself. Of all of the performers from this cast, he’s probably the only one that I actually BELIEVED in the role. And his vocals were good at times, especially considering his young age.

Trent Yoder played Benny, and managed to get past my initial expectation that Benny must always be played by an African American man. If you’re familiar with the show, you know Benny doesn’t get as much stage time as the other main characters… The good thing about his performance here is that I didn’t have any point where I winced, crossed my arms, or shook my head. His performance was steady, and remarkable simply because it was unremarkable.

Lauren Ashley Radford, the understudy for Mimi, had her time in the spotlight during the matinee performance I saw. She’s also a high school student, and did a surprisingly good job with the vocals considering her age and her understudy status.

In general, most of the actors just weren’t believable as underprivileged New Yorkers trying to cope with poverty, terminal illness, grief, addiction, and despair. They just didn’t make the audience feel their pain, fear, and loss.

Now let’s talk about some scenes in this play that I’m very fond of, and was eager to see in this production. Here’s the lightning round:

“Light My Candle” was a disappointment, due to some technical difficulties (the matches wouldn’t light, half of the time!) and a couple of missteps in the blocking.

“Today For You” was a BIG disappointment, right from the first note. Rather than having the orchestra play the song, which is powerful and thrilling, they piped in recorded music for it. The volume was low, and the choreography wasn’t anywhere near the frantic and energetic dancing normally asked of Angel. This song and dance should have you grinning and ready to stamp your feet and shout your acclaim, but it just didn’t.

“You’ll See” was good, giving Benny one of his few chances in the script to shine.

“The Tango Maureen” was good musically, though the dancing from the two leads felt a bit stiff. There were three couples dancing behind the leads, which surprised me — is this normally in the show and I’ve always been so captivated by the leads that I missed it? Frankly, the dancing in the background was more interesting to me, especially considering the gender mixes involved (two men, two women, and a male-female couple) Still, the singing was good, and let’s be frank — that’s more important to most people, including me.

“Will I” is a non-negotiable for me. If you screw up this scene, you’ve lost me for the entire show. I’m not one who normally cries during sad movies, plays, etc. but this scene often gets me teary-eyed. While it didn’t do so this round, it did give me the chills it deserves, and was overall good.

“Santa Fe” was good. Nothing especially remarkable, positive or negative, which I’ll count as a win here.

“Christmas Bells” was a nightmare. Half of the microphones weren’t working at any given moment, so the audience would hear a couple of ensemble actors extremely clearly, but not hear the people next to them and what dialogue was happening. It felt like a series of random monologues without context, and was frustratingly disjointed.

“Over the Moon” was a pleasant surprise. Meghan Whitney stepped onto the stage for Maureen’s introduction, and added her own twists to the character’s performance art. For probably the first time in the entire show, I found myself grinning and laughing at something that was supposed to be funny. The actress did a good job making the scene her own.

“Take Me or Leave Me” was interesting to me, as Mark’s character was on the stage throughout the argument by Maureen and Joanne. Again, maybe I somehow never managed to notice this in the other productions I saw, but I thought that his presence was a nice addition. His reaction to the actresses’ feud was better than either of their performances in the scene, though both ladies were okay here.

“Contact” was hard for me to accept, since it was on a high school stage. The scene just didn’t feel as sexual and urgent as it should have, but that may have been my own hang-up to a degree (because of the venue, and the age of some of the participants) More damaging to the performance, though, was that this was another scene with recorded music instead of utilizing the orchestra sitting idle in front of the stage. And any audience members watching this show for the first time may not have even understood what was happening at the end — Angel’s death wasn’t at all apparent until the funeral began.

And finally, the entire finale just didn’t work for me. Maybe it’s because by this point I was anxious for the performance to end, but it just felt forced. I didn’t feel any real pain from any of the actors, Mimi’s near-death frailty wasn’t clear, and frankly I wouldn’t have even realized she had died if I didn’t know the story so well. I didn’t feel the usual shock and grief from the audience, nor the usual relief and joy at her resurrection. The whole scene just felt like they were going through the motions.

Overall, this show feels very much like a high school production, with very young actors, a stage in a high school auditorium, and a tiny audience made up mostly of loyal supporters of the cast. (You could tell which sections were friends and family of which performers, as there would suddenly be four or five elated screams and standing ovations for the briefest moments onstage)

The people in the audience whipping out cameras throughout didn’t help make this feel like a professional theatre company either, and the company seemed to grudgingly accept this — at the beginning, they merely asked that the flash be turned off, apparently acknowledging that proud parents and friends were going to take photos anyway.

This is a show with a very special place in the collective heart of lovers of musical theatre, and should be approached with care. With this cast, it didn’t come across as the professional production it should have, but it was clear the cast was having a lot of fun with it. You can all-too-clearly envision the actors having grown up listening to the music, singing joyously into a hairbrush and a mirror, or making YouTube video lip syncing along, but that’s not the experience patrons of the arts expect when they buy tickets.

I was very disappointed by RENT, and the group of professional (and adult) actors with me all felt the same. This is a show to attend if you’re supporting a cast, crew, or orchestra member involved with the show. If you’re just a fan of theatre, or love this show in particular, stay at home and watch the DVD of the Broadway finale. It’ll be cheaper, closer to home, and a lot more satisfying.

8 Responses to RENT at South Pointe High School

  1. […] anymore. When I was leaving RENT and heard a young woman behind me say, “I’ve got CHILLS! That was amazing!” I […]

  2. Trent Yoder says:

    Ho ho ho!!!
    Yes, I did play Benny in this cast, and no I won’t be flaming you. Just thought I’d make some corrections. The Edge isn’t a professional company, merely a new community theater that is only in it’s 3rd season. (The Edge’s main goal is showcase local and new works.) None of the actors were payed for any of our roles or time commitment, which was kinda rough considering the actor who played Roger and myself had to commute near an hour and a half each way for rehearsals.

    Other than that, I thank you for your honesty even if I feel you approached the play from the wrong perspective. I think it could be fun to have a discussion with you and hear some more specifics, you can email if you want (I’m assuming you can see it) as I love hearing real criticism.

  3. gatoruptown says:

    Trent, thanks for reading and commenting!

    My favorite blog entries are ones where people add their own views, particularly when we can disagree civilly and exchange views. I had a similar experience with my West Side Story review, and enjoyed being challenged (and corrected) by readers who could educate me and lead me to reconsider my opinions.

    I understand your frustration at being a volunteer actor who commutes an incredible distance for a show. My partner drove 30-45 minutes each way from Charlotte to Davidson for a show, and I thought THAT was bad! You’re clearly devoted to your craft if you’re making a similar (and even greater) sacrifice of time and gas money.

  4. Jimmy Chrismon says:

    Kevin,

    Hi, I am the director of Rent. I, like Trent, will not be flaming you either. I, actually, first and foremost want to thank you for posting your honest and heartfelt response to our work. Thank you for making the trip to Rock Hill to see the show. I know that in itself is a commitment to make that long trip. I do it every day to go to work at South Pointe High School.

    I would like to take a moment to not defend myself, as I know blogging and reviews are merely one person’s opinion. I am not offended by opinions. I sincerely appreciate your thoughts, harsh as they may feel at times, as you were the only posted review of the show. I appreciate you taking the time to give constructive feedback. Praise is wonderful, but I don’t feel praise makes improvements for the better.

    I like to deal with facts. I know you had a bad experience with the production you saw from The Edge Theatre Company. I know you did not receive the chills you felt you should have. I know the SPHS above the stage distracted you and served as a haunting reminder that you were in a high school watching some high schoolers and recent graduates of high school. I deal with that lettering above the stage all year long and am annoyed even when it is the high school’s productions, so I can appreciate that.

    I wanted to give you a few facts, not excuses, for some of your distate for the show.

    1. Contrary to what Trent posted, The Edge is only completing our FIRST season. He is correct in stating that we are a community theatre. We don’t hide behind the guise of saying we are a professional theatre when we are simply a community theatre. Our goal is to showcase new works, new actors, and more cutting edge theatre in Rock Hill. Charlotte is flooded with fringe community theatres like The Edge. This is why I established our home in Rock Hill so that Rock Hill and the surrounding communities wouldn’t have to drive 45 minutes to see this kind of theatre.
    2. The Orchestra was the exact same size as the one used on Broadway and the national tours and they played the same music. This inculded the pre-recorded tracks of Today 4 U and Contact which are the exact tracks used in those productions and are provided by Music Theatre International so that the live bands can have the dance track sound that is used on Broadway and on tour. They actually use these in those professional shows as well. That was a surprise to me too. I am sorry that you felt the energy lacked in those scenes. I felt those scenes were some of the more solid and energetic of the show, compared to others that you could have focused on for lack of energy and intensity.
    3. The Sound Production- I cannot disagree that there were some major issues the first weekend. I know that full well. Unfortunately, and fortunately, in live theatre, you get one shot to wow your audience. I am sorry that you were there on an exceptionally rough day. The technicians were volunteers just as the cast, crew, and band were. I appreciated their efforts to do everything they could to make it sound as good as they could. However, it is live, and things do happen.
    4. I do personally take offense to your slam against theatre education and educators in this area including Charlotte and Rock Hill. I being one of them, understand that not everyone understands full well that our job is NOT to prepare kids for Broadway and glowing reviews from amateur theatre critics such as this area is flooded with. Our job is to take kids where they are and give them positive experiences in theatre, hopefully educate our public a bit more about what theatre is, and maybe light a fire that will push them to pursue this further in private study, college and university work, community and professioanl theatre, and being loyal patrons of the arts that are educated. Sorry you think we are failing. Have you stepped inside a public school classroom lately? … off my rant, sorry. But I feel your comments are unfounded. But then again, that is my opinion as well.
    5. Christmas Bells is a nightmare even with the Broadway and touring company. I believe Jonathan Larson was a brilliant writer and would have continued to do great things had he lived, however, I do believe this is a nightmare scene in itself. I handled it well. My actors did very well with it.
    6. I agree with you on MANY of your individual comments about specific moments in the show. There are always things directors want to happen differently. However, you do have to come to a compromise at some point and pick and choose which battles are fought for the good of the whole show.
    7. Surely you understand there are many things a director can control and many things a director cannot control. Who auditions is not one of those things a director can control. Would I have liked an older cast? YES! Absolutely. Is that what showed up to audition? NO! I was most surprised by the turn-out. However, large the turn-out was, it did not lend itself to an older cast when the final decisions were made. I sacrificed a few amazingly talented actors who were older and more capable of performing the roles. But, as a director, you have to make decisions that are best for the show. An unbalanced cast of older performers mixed with much younger performers would not have been a wise decision. I chose to go with the best of the best of the younger cast. Are there casting decisions I would have made differently looking back now? Absolutely! Would it have been a better show and experience for you, Kevin? Perhaps.

    What venue in Charlotte could have handled this production? CPCC’s Halton theatre. Davidson. Winthrop. UNCC. Northwest School of the Arts at the Booth Playhouse. That’s it. I don’t think the quality of what you saw (despite some technical issues which I am in agreement with) was any less quality of what you would have seen at these places with slightly bigger budgets. You would have had technical difficulties. You would have had the audience coming in with expectations of seeing the Broadway show remounted verbatim. You would have seen the same young inexperienced cast. People tend to forget that the show is actually about young people the age of what you saw on stage at South Pointe. Not near 40 year olds like we saw in the movie and the most recent tour through Charlotte. So I encourage my student Jonathan Hoskins, and new friends and colleagues Trent Yoder, Lauren Ashley Radford, Meghan Whitney, and the rest of the cast to take your compliments with high regard and appreciation. And, to take the bad and learn from it and keep sharpening their craft.

    I feel the show was a success. We had the balls to take it on and we did it very well. I am proud of my work. I am proud of the young people’s work in this show. I hope you will consider making the drive back to Rock Hill at some point to see our other work. If not, I understand. We cannot please everyone. We don’t try to be something we are not, like other theatres in Charlotte that do the same kind of work and charge a much higher ticket price. I am an educator first and foremost. I am a advocate of young people. The Edge is a dream of mine come true and we have done high quality work in our first season and the young people who I have worked with should be proud.

    Thanks for your time and feedback. It is truly greatly appreciated.

    Jimmy Chrismon

  5. gatoruptown says:

    Jimmy, WOW, what a thorough response! Thanks for taking the time to give my review so much thought.

    First, since I clearly struck a nerve — my comment about theatre education for young actors was based solely on a very bad experience with another theatre company in this area. A director saw a much kinder review than the one for your production, and yet reacted very defensively and out of anger. She also failed to give her actors (many of whom were very young) the wise coaching that it sounds like you’re giving your actors: take a review as one person’s opinion, celebrate the parts that were considered a success by the reviewer, and see what could be learned (if anything) from the parts the reviewer didn’t care for.

    So, my apologies for a blanket statement about theatre education in this area. You seem to be fulfilling the role of teacher, coach, and mentor much better than the director I had my concerns about.

    I totally respect the position you were in as a director, needing to balance the casting options you had available. I agree — putting in several older, more “seasoned” actors with high school students wouldn’t have been a better option. If anything, it would’ve drawn attention to one subgroup or the other, which would have only emphasized the distinction and made it seem disjointed.

    Are “Today 4 U” and “Contact” really pre-recorded for the national tours? That’s definitely news to me! I’m not disputing your comment, I’m just surprised) It must have just been a sound issue on the performance we saw, then. I’ve never noticed it before, so tours (and I’m assuming the Broadway productions) must have just masked it very well.

    Regarding “Christmas Bells”: you’re right, I’ve seen the EXACT same problem occur in a national tour. Too many voices at once, microphones not always capturing everything simultaneously, and that feeling of disjointedness. Sometimes the cast still pulls it off, and it comes across as a symphony rather than a cacophony. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. It’s a dicey scene, no matter who’s on stage. Good call out, Jimmy.

    As for The Edge Theatre Company, I think we may be focused on semantics. In my mind I don’t make a distinction between “professional” and “community” theatre, except that obviously I expect a different caliber of performance from a national tour than I would a local production. When speaking purely of local shows, though, the only distinction I’d make would be “school production” or “professional” meaning an actual theatre company put on the show, rather than an educational institution.

    And my disappointment at RENT in no way predispositions me to lose interest in other productions from The Edge Theatre Company. If there’s a show coming up that sounds interesting, or is a script with which I’m familiar and enjoy, I’ll definitely consider driving down to see it. There are shows that Blumenthal hosts here in Charlotte that I don’t like, but it certainly doesn’t dissuade me from seeing other shows there (assuming there eventually are SOME good ones, which of course there are)

    Thanks for working so hard to bring exciting theatre to a smaller community. I’ll definitely check out your season and see if there are other shows that capture my interest, and I encourage my readers to do the same.

  6. gatoruptown says:

    Side-note: I’m surprised that this review is getting such a large hit-rate so long after the production has ended its run. And I’m also pleasantly surprised at the tone some of the commenters have taken.

    Thanks, guys, for publicly disagreeing but being civil and adult about it. I’m always delighted when grown people with a shared love of theatre can exchange ideas, even when some of the opinions expressed are harsh and could offend. Public discourse like this is a wonderful result of online blogging, and I appreciate it.

  7. Jimmy Chrismon says:

    Kevin,
    Thanks for the response! I appreciate the clarifications regarding the theatre education comment. It is sad that there are those out there who are not as professional in their approach to use reviews such as yours to learn from and encourage their students to do the same. I really do sincerely appreciate your support and understanding of my decisions as a director. And I appreciate your clarification with the semantics between professional/ community and high school theatre. I would maybe like to utilize your skills in criticism this school year with my students. Perhaps we can chat further about this possibility. Again thank you for the forum. When it is a work of art that you pour so much of your time, energy, passion, and emotion into, it is tough to hear the criticism. It is even tougher to respond without getting angry or passionately heated as well. Thanks, again!
    All the best!
    Cheers!
    Jimmy

  8. […] RENT at South Pointe High School « GatorUptown’s BlogJul 13, 2009 … Jimmy Chrismon says: August 3, 2009 at 2:09 pm. Kevin,. Hi, I am the director of Rent. I, like Trent, will not be flaming you either. I, actually, first … […]

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