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.