I cannot praise Bryan Tank enough for his take on composer Jonathan Larson's Rent, as the director's concept renders the much-loved Broadway hit an even more cohesive ensemble piece than any production of the musical I've yet seen. Friday's District Theatre performance left me with a renewed love for Larson's material and, in what may be the highest compliment I can give in regard to the emotionality of the presentation, it left my rarely-moved-to-tears partner Matt in tears - twice.
For the District Theatre's second production of this rock opera (first produced in 2010, when the company was the Harrison Hilltop Theatre), Tank creates an honorable sense of story, rather than attempting to present it as a slice-of-life look at the lives of the musical's characters. This is evident right from the start, as the entire cast is present on stage during the first song "Tune Up/Voice Mail #1," which really only requires five characters; the full cast's presence suggests a self-awareness that this is a show in which the characters will observe the proceedings as much as the audience does. This, in turn, creates a greater sense of connection with the audience - a "we're all in this together" feeling - and even though the full cast isn't on stage throughout the entire production, this atmosphere of collectiveness remains.
You feel this most poignantly during the "Another Day" number, as Kelly Lohrenz's Mimi struggles to break through the defensive mask of Chris Causer's Roger. As Causer, with a breathtakingly gorgeous voice, sings his brokenhearted reasons for deflecting Mimi's advances, the support group on another part of the stage (from the "Life Support" scene) stands and surrounds the pair, singing the "no day but today" mantra to Roger, and subsequently representing his inner struggle as Mimi finds a way into his heart.
For her part, Lohrenz offers a fresh take on Mimi, one that reveals layer after layer of personality that's apparent beginning with the character's introduction to Roger in the "Light My Candle" number. Rather than engaging in the flirting I've seen in past productions, including the movie and Broadway DVD, Lohrenz's Mimi seems indifferent to Roger; she really is just visiting his apartment to get a light for her candle. Consequently, instead of Mimi manipulating Roger (though she does turn on the sexual charm when it serves her purposes), Roger is left tentatively chasing Mimi, and with Lohrenz giving her role more edge than we're used to seeing in it, her fully and impressively realized interpretation is now, by far, my favorite take on the character.
Joseph J. Baez manages a similar accomplishment in his portrayal of the cross-dressing Angel. I still believe Larson intended this figure to be stronger than he has been written - a problem that weakens the impact of the character's death - but Baez rises above this weakness, making clear why Angel is so beloved by his friends. While he's helped by Tank's ensemble approach to the musical, Baez's selfless physical choices - offerings a supportive squeeze on the shoulder here, a loving pat on the leg there - enable Angel to make more sense; we understand why he's so important to those who know him. This gives Angel's death the emotional impact it needs, as do the sincere reactions from those gathered at his funeral. Lighting designer Matthew Carney adds further punch to the scene with an effect that leaves only the word "Angel" glowing on a wall of graffiti following the character's demise. (It's also worth noting that costume designer Sara King thankfully forsakes the familiar Santa-esque dress Angel typically wears in favor of a red dress, a short, white button-up sweater, and knee-high black-patent-leather boots - a look that suggests it was assembled at the local thrift shop, as would be appropriate given Angel's finances.)
Meanwhile, Tristan Layne Tapscott's subtle approach to Mark - the filmmaker documenting the lives of his bohemian friends - is remarkable. In past productions I've seen, Mark is portrayed with more gusto and given more importance than the character deserves, which has generally turned Rent, for me, into The Mark & Roger Show. Here, though, Tapscott avoids hogging the spotlight, allowing his Mark to blend in with the ensemble and, in turn, strengthen it.
Other than it featuring a few missed notes on Friday, I have nothing negative to say about the District Theatre's Rent, which succeeds primarily through Tank's storytelling approach, one that's different from productions that attempt to mimic the original Broadway staging. As the premiere production in the theatre's fifth-anniversary season, Rent sets the bar high for the rest of the year's lineup.
Rent runs at the District Theatre (1611 Second Avenue, Rock Island) through February 24, and information and tickets are available by calling (309)235-1654 or visiting DistrictTheatre.com.