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THEATER REVIEW: ‘RENT’

California Public Theater is presenting the rock musical “RENT” — the much-loved Jonathan Larson tale of Mark, Roger, Mimi and other New York bohemians struggling with poverty and AIDS at the turn of the 21st Century — at the Tower Theatre for a short two-performance run. (The closing show is 8 p.m. Saturday.) A hard-working cast gets through the material, but apart from a few strong vocal and acting performances, much of the production is substandard. With the best seats selling for $38.50 and the cheapest at $23.50, I cannot recommend it, particularly at that price point.

Terrible sound (designed by Steve Allen) marred the opening night production, with the wireless microphones of the leading characters repeatedly going in and out. Buzzing sounds and feedback plagued the evening, and a couple of times the audience heard what sounded like interjections from the backstage crew, or perhaps they were just random voices picked up on an unintended frequency. Songs delivered as phone messages from Mark’s mother and others were rushed and hard to understand, blotting out key plot points. The worst part was the balance between the amplified major roles and the unamplified members of the ensemble. Such powerful numbers as “Christmas Bells” and “Another Day” lost their impact. (On the positive side, the nice live band, directed by Matthew D. Wheeler, never overpowered the singers.)

Also hampering the production: an almost complete lack of atmosphere or sense of place. S. Eric Day’s scenic design — he also directs — is a simple, multi-level steel framework, which could have worked much better with a more sophisticated lighting design. The few set pieces look bare and naked under Jason Lawton’s glaring lights. (It’s disconcerting to have a distracting shine coming from Mark (Nick Hand) and Roger’s (Brian Pucheu) orange vinyl couch during the number “Light My Candle,” which is supposed to be during a power outage.) The result is that through much of the show, the bland, institutional setting has all the ambiance of an employee lounge at Target.

I am unimpressed with much of Day’s direction, which often is clunky. Why, for example, in the audience favorite “Seasons of Love,” the famed “525,600 minutes” song at the beginning of the second act, is there a tall, distracting door smack in the center of the stage, requiring the traditional straight line of performers to bend awkwardly around it? Why is Mimi’s (Valerie Salcedo) big number “Out Tonight” staged with a full complement of dancers, bouncers and four audience members who receive lap dances, all distracting from Mimi’s joyful moves? Why does Tom Collins (Harrison Mills, who does find a lot of emotional intensity in the role) fumble with the sheet that wraps the sick Angel (Michael Watanabe) during what should be an incredibly tender moment? Too much of this production simply doesn’t have the assurance it needs.

I do think it has some good leading performances. Pucheu has some great emotional moments as Roger, and while he doesn’t always sound quite comfortable singing a hard-edged rock style, his vocals often soar. Hand is an impressive Mark. Abigail Nolte has a standout moment as Maureen in “Over the Moon,” giving her own playful interpretation of the song while still staying true to the material. And Gaylon Strickland, as the conniving Benny, has a strong stage presence.

Overall, however, I was disappointed. I admire California Public Theater’s ambition, but the results aren’t strong enough. One of my favorite parts of “RENT” is in “Christmas Bells” when a cacophony of intertwined voices merge together in the final measures for a rousing group snub of the holiday. There’s a passion and precision there, when performed correctly, that gives voice to the disaffected. You feel the power of united voices. I just didn’t feel that power enough with this production.

Pictured: Nick Hand as Mark. Photo by Jared Jurcak.

 

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘RENT’"

Robert Ruffner says:

How about you have a little more class and wait until the production is complete to share your negative thoughts?

Danielle says:

You are obviously welcome to disagree with Donald, but is every review supposed to praise everything up and down? If it did, why bother? A review is an opinion. He is allowed to have that opinion, good or bad.

Melissa says:

Unfortunately, when a show opens, it’s open! Regardless of if the cast and crew is ready. And this show is only a two night run, so I doubt Donald would see a significantly different show tonight. Good to hear some honest feedback. I often feel that l local theater reviews are sugar coated because everyone knows eachother.

Robert says:

lets see you get your ass on that stage and do a better job….

considering the circumstances……that cast deserves SOME credit.

ed says:

reviews normally come out when shows open. not sure why you you think Donald isn’t showing class by doing his job: giving honest reviews of cultural events in Fresno.

I’m curious, do you disagree with his assessment? if so, what specifically do you think differently on? If the same review went up Sunday, would you think it more classy?

Andrew says:

Donald, you just restored my faith in you. Thank you for this review.

Upset says:

this is so f—– up.

Tired Girl says:

The cast worked very hard for this show and would have liked to see a full house but thanks to you this probably won’t happen. You failed to mention that the problems you mentioned had nothing to do with the cast. The cast has worked their butts off for the past 2 months through injuries and illness.

ed says:

donald did compliment the cast in his review, and singled out some noteworthy roles. he didn’t blame the cast for the sound issues, so it’s strange that you’re upset with donald for not specifically mentioning that it wasn’t the fault of the cast. he did mention the sound designer. and he is completely right, the sound issues were horrendous. the issues spoiled several moments, other parts of dialog were lost completely, backstage conversations were heard by the crowd and so on. this was my first time seeing the show, and i enjoyed it. but, for the money spent (by the producers and the audience), a higher quality product is deserved.

tired girl says:

actually no. he only recognized a couple people from the cast. It is also not the theatre company’s fault that they didn’t have the budget for high quality microphones. the ensemble was supposed to have mics but because of the continuous feedback they cut them to reduce it. Also failed to mention the standing ovation and people crying in the audience. and I am not upsut, the goal of the show isn’t to impress mr.monroe. the goal of the show is to send a message and touch people with the wonderful story.

Stephen says:

Tired, I feel your pain, but I must clarify one point.

It is entirely the production company’s fault when they can’t afford something. A choice is made to be at the Tower. The Tower needs augmented sound and specific lighting to work. That needs to be known and budgeted well before casting begins.

Production companies then carefully choose their designers, ensuring time and money will be provided to allow for success. Those designers must be chosen for their known ability to work in that space, with a live band, a versatile set, and a hard-working cast.

Otherwise the production company is setting itself up to fail, failing not only themselves but also the hard-working cast and high-price paying audience.

Ambition alone cannot properly light and amplify a show.

ed says:

from the review, “A hard-working cast gets through the material, but apart from a few strong vocal and acting performances, much of the production is substandard.” seems like donald has noticed that the cast put in a lot of work, did point out a few standouts, and critiqued the directing/sound/set (production).

Brent Moser says:

The very first comment regarding the specific production, good or bad, calls the cast hard-working. As a non-involved reader…I took this to mean he did appreciate the whole cast’s effort. Not sure I understand this post…

Abigail Nolte says:

Thank you Donald for taking the time to come to the show and sharing your opinions. While your opinions may differ with others on the vision of the show, I think we can all agree that the cast is full of wonderful local talent. As actors, we do what we can with the tools we are given. I’d personally like recognize the professionalism of my cast mates for powering through our technical problems last night. We have a chance to fix some of those issues and put on another show tonight. It’s the beauty of live theater; you just never know what could happen!
Thank you for supporting local theater!
Sincerely,
Abigail Nolte.

Brent Moser says:

Bravo, Abigail. You are a mature, professional performer.

I have always said, and tried to convey to any company I have worked with:
“If you believe your good reviews, you damn well better believe the bad ones”

Having said that, I try not to “believe” any of them…good OR bad.

While I greatly respect Donald as a reviewer and as a writer…his is simply just ONE educated opinion. I don’t always agree with what he says…but then that is just MY opinion. Reviews absolutely serve as a way to publicize a show…but no one (performers or the community) should ever believe that a review absolutely defines the show.

Harrison Mills says:

Could not have said it better myself. Thank you both Brent Moser and Donald Monroe for your professional stature.

suzanne grazyna says:

Word, Brent Moser. Grow a thicker skin if you want to stay in theater. This review is NOTHING compared to some of the things that await you. Especially if you do college shows. Be ready to be torn apart for your own good.

Reality says:

Let’s observe this gem from an unbiased professional prospective. The sound was muffled, static-ridden, and often hard to hear at times. The lighting was awkward, illuminating the audience removing their full concentration on the stage and story itself- Not mention mics turning on and off on the actors. And that’s just the technical issues alone. Performances were often one-dimensional and jolly resembling the Mickey Mouse Club with aids. Two performers had somewhat of a spark, but overall everybody lacked electricity to make me tolerate two full acts. Half the time, I didn’t believe that the performers actually knew what they were singing about. The ensemble was awkward and impossible to hear. PROJECTION.

Donald was real sincere with his review, and I’m astounded that actors from this show had the class to create an unprofessional stream of retaliating comments to somebody’s honest opinion- And a word of advice to the director, don’t bite of more than what you can chew. Your leftovers shined brightest on that stage.

Stephen says:

“resembling the Mickey Mouse club with AIDS” – Comment WIN

Jeff says:

“The result is that through much of the show, the bland, institutional setting has all the ambiance of an employee lounge at Target.”

Winner!

unknown says:

he didn’t even see the show. he left in the beginning. i respect his opinion, but if he’s going to write a review…..he should actually watch the whole show before forming a complete opinion.

Donald Munro says:

I don’t usually respond to comments on reviews, but I will set the record straight on this one: I was there for the entire performance.

Adam says:

Having shaken his hand at intermission and watched him move to seats a little further from the stage, I can vouch for Mr. Munro’s presence for the entirety of the show.

Jeff says:

The moniker, “unknown” is perfect for this commenter. Mr Munro staying for the entire performance was “unknown” to them.

Honest Theatre Go-er and Performer says:

Some performers in this town can be so tacky, it’s unbelievable. Stop whining and throwing a fit! Sometimes the show you’re in is good, and sometimes it’s just not. Deal with it. I’ve been in a show or two that got a negative review and I didn’t post defensive comments questioning Donald’s opinion and making excuses. I swear, if I was a director I would make my cast sign a contract making them agree not NOT comment on their beehive review. Yes, you worked hard….all casts work hard. Deal with it, take the criticism, and move on already. Throwing a fit and acting defensive on the Beehive review isn’t going to change the review, peoples opinions or the quality of your show.

In the audience says:

There were multiple technical issues causing myself and others to cringe, which Donald rightly pointed out.
I think the mostly negative response to this review was due to the fact the negative was highlighted, whereas the positive comments were well buried.
Despite the all if the issues, as that amazing projection at the end flashed the logo “Rent” the audience, myself included, was on its feet cheering for the amazing performances, willing to look past those issues in order to show our appreciation for the way they touched our hearts.

IN says:

In the audience, well said……….. We agree with you entirely, we were in the audience too.. Even though there were issues, we didn’t feel the direction or the production was a failure. We could feel frustration from the talented cast when their voices and the sound kept cutting out…….Life doesn’t always go smoothly which is part of what this play “Rent” was all about!! Hummm and it was also about Love, so lets all show some!! Go Back tonight and break some legs! Happy New Year to you All!

I anin't ask ya is ya is, says:

I know how hard these men and women worked. I know the director could have spent more time with the cast in stead of the set, but then there would be no set. No tech rehersal,, what? Come on Director,, put this back in your bucket list and try again but this time be more prepaired. Crud even the the person who owned the mic’s didn’t check them first,.. what?? really!! what no sound check before the show,, OMG,,,, do over ,, I call for a do over.. I squirmed for the actors who worked so hard when the mic’s went to crap. They continued on with great determination,,BRAVO to them,, BOOO to the director who obviously should put a bit more thought into his productions and maybe take contructive critisism from the cast when given AND MAKE THE CHANGES NEED WHEN ASKED TOO.

jamie says:

These comments are more entertaining than the show was. S. Eric Day bit off too much here — hard show, hard venue, clearly not enough time and money. I don’t feel badly for the actors because they are getting to be in RENT! They were lucky enough to sing those glorious songs, but still bitch because Fresno’s only cultural voice didn’t cream himself over your work? Wow. Mr. Munro is generally way TOO kind to a lot of the arts in Fresno and does his best to promote not denigrate shows.

JJJj says:

Saw the show tonight, and before even reading the review, came to this website to talk about one thing: the sound. I see the review covered it. Same exact issues tonight. One actor had no working mic, there was feedback, and the occasional random loud noise/voice unrelated to the stage (backstage, audience, down the street?).

Mind you, Ive seen three plays in Fresno in the past year, and all three times it was the exact same issue, extremely poor sound hurt the performance immensely. Spring Awakening at the vetarns was one of them, the other was at the warnor.

It seems like in this town, if you’re not in the Saroyan, it’s 100% amateur hour when it comes to sound, which is shocking because it plays such a big part of the show.

I dont know how things work in theaters and such (ie, whos responsible for the sound) but I would have thought it would make sense for the venue to have a top of the line sound system, not leave it up to each performance to bring their own radio shack equipment.

Did want to note the theater was 90%+ full, not sure how it was Friday.

pkalebjian says:

Saroyan has had their sound issues as well- rembering a particularly bad Broadway series of Spamalot-

JJJ says:

I remember reading about that, but I havent had a bad experience there – yet.

Jerry Palladino says:

Thank you, Donald. Honesty often hurts, but reviews are personal opinions and your opinion is important. I always appreciate your comments, positive and negative. We learn and grow from your insight and critical voice. Keep doing what you do, we all know your points made help us improve. RENT was a sellout Saturday night, and even with technical issues, the cast did feel the love that poured back from Saturday’s wonderful audience. Theater will always entertain!

Patricia Brown says:

Just got back from the Saturday night show. I sat in the back where I smelled bleach from the bathroom and cigarette smoke from the street during intermission, and the ushers whispered during the show. Kinda like being in the East Village on a Saturday night. I lived in Manhattan for six years and my next door neighbor died of AIDS. I like that this show was messy and unkept. It’s like those who macremade in the ’60′s, always making an intentional mistake because only God can be perfect—there’s something sacred in imperfection. Larson lives on.

A.C. says:

I attended the performance on Saturday night. I have to agree with Mr. Munro on some of the items mentioned, although I have a slightly different perspective. Yes, there were some sound issues, which have been beat to the ground already (so I will leave the dead horse alone). The show, in my opinion was a decent representation, given the budgetary issues. The venue being at Tower Theatre is important in order to insure one gets the draw they need. I must admit, the fact that it was held in a classic, historic venue like Tower Theatre definately grabbed my attention. Set design could have done more to show the transition from the loft, the club and the restaurant. Hard to visualize the differnces in the would be locales. Actors did a great job (although seemed a bit forced at times by a couple of folks). Shout out to Melinda on her solo in Seasons of Love! Awsome ( I thought). The final question is…would I see this again next year…The answer is YES! Great job all.

anita says:

If Donald had given a good review I would never have trusted him again. The sound issues were unrelentingly distracting, making it impossible to lose yourself in the production. very disappointing. I felt so bad for the performers; they gave their all under adverse conditions and I applaud them. Not being a performer myself, I can only imagine how hard it was to stay focused with the sound issues.

Susan G Neville says:

As the box office manager for The Tower Theatre all I can say is these comments, good or bad, did not hamper the sales for Saturday night’s show. I was slammed in the box office selling tickets.

Theatre goer says:

Honestly, I agree with Mr.Munro. The cast in its entirety was lacking the necessary talent pool to keep a demanding show like rent afloat. I sat through the show gritting my teeth because of sour vocals and poor stage direction. Overall, I just don’t feel the cast was capable of carrying the show vocally and although I understand it was given a great deal of heart I was wildly disappointed. Perhaps if more seasoned performers had been cast and the vocals were given more time there would have been a stronger performance. The show itself felt undone and more like a tech rehearsal rather then an actual performance.

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