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.