Jonathan Larson's popular rock musical Rent, which ran for 12 years on Broadway, is an updating of Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème. It returns again to Houston, this time from the Eklektix Theatre Company, a relatively new troupe in Houston that has recently produced Spring Awakening, The Rocky Horror Show, and a post-apocalyptic version of Macbeth, set a thousand years in the future.
The set consists of metal platforms and metal tables, and on a large screen upstage are projected street scenes, and sometimes interior scenes, of New York City. The setting is Alphabet City in lower Manhattan, and the time, though unspecified in the program, is probably 1993.
Mark (Bobby Hewitt) and Roger (Jake Bevill) are roomies in an unheated loft on Avenue B. Mark is a budding videographer and in the course of the play, he videotapes the events. Roger composes songs, and longs to write one perfect song that will define him, as he sings "One Song Glory". Mimi is portrayed by Maryann Williams, beautiful, and with a physical charisma that would serve well a fitness model. She stands out, while Hewett and Bevill do not, seeming two-dimensional, rather than full-blooded. Hewett sings well and generates a pleasant façade, but never more than that. Bevill has a lithe physique, and some of the looks of a young Paul Newman, but fails to convert these advantages into a vibrant characterization.
The projections may be part of the problem, as they detract rather that enhance, and draw attention away from the actors. The volume can be uneven, depending on the actor's projection and where he or she is standing. And the characters seem to want to connect with their words, and with the audience, rather than with each other. The result is a flat production, with individual passages that are effective, but without a unifying flow.
The role of Angel is a flamboyant one, and Erik Olmos Tristan, who was so good as the Fiddler recently in Fiddler on the Roof, carves out a vivid characterization that brings excitement to the proceedings. His body language is rich, and inventive, and it's easy to see why his companion, Tom Collins (Johnny Nichols) has befriended him. Oddly enough, a standout is an actor in the ensemble, Fong Chau, whose deadpan portrayal of a Squeegee man broke me up. His role is minor indeed, but his contribution is not.
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There are conflicts aplenty, as the rent is due and the pockets are empty, as we hear in the title song: "How we gonna pay, etc." Mimi is a drug addict, and Roger fights his attraction to her in the haunting "Another Day". The rollicking and joyous "La Vie Bohème" comes toward the end of the first act. "Tango: Maureen" with its compelling beat, joyous lilt, and witty lyrics, should be a show-stopper, but it doesn't rise here to that level.
The Eklektix Theatre Company's artistic director, Bryan-Keyth Wilson, directed the production. Rent can be played for gritty realism, or for sentimental pathos, and Wilson appears to have opted for the latter. The staging is unnecessarily busy, and some of the movements on stage seem to serve no significant purpose. While most of the casting served its purpose, that of Benny, played by Micheal Lovette, is problematic - he seemed still to be part of the impoverished underdogs, while in fact he had gained entrée to the middle class. The verdict:
A strong though familiar story line and a Tony Award-winning score go a long way toward overcoming some pedestrian performances and distracting staging, while a few acting standouts do achieve the potential in their roles.
Rent continues through August 9 and 10, at 8 pm, from the Eklektix Theatre Company, at Freneticore Theatre, 5102 Navigation Blvd. For information or ticketing, call 713-876-3222 or contact www.eklektixtheatre.org