Capsule Stage Reviews: Rent, Thunder Rock

Rent Paper globe moon, graffiti-covered brick wall, chain-link fence, industrial pipes, corner phone booth: There's only one great show with all these elements, Jonathan Larson's hip, evergreen cultural phenomenon from 1996. Winner of the Tony, Drama Desk, Obie and a Pulitzer Prize, Rent is so full of life and such an exuberant rock paean to unconventional bohemianism that it always comes as a shock to recall that creator Larson (music, lyrics, book) died on the eve of the premiere and never witnessed its huge success. Even with this horribly ironic baggage, Rent is one of the great Broadway works, an instant classic, and Country Playhouse imbues this show with a tremendously winning, affecting production. It's one of the company's best shows ever, and that's saying something, for CP's been very hot recently. Director O'Dell Hutchison infuses this Manhattan East Village updating of Puccini's classic opera La Bohème with sexy energy, theatrical pizzazz and an immense heart, and the entire company goes the distance and makes his work look effortless. The talented young cast brings this wondrous show to life: Brad Goertz (AIDS-infected musician Roger), Christopher Patton (videographer Mark), Erich Polley (drag queen Angel), Julia Hester (drug-addicted Mimi), Jessica Janes (lesbian performance artist Maureen), Michael Alexander (Tom Collins, Angel's lover), Kyle Ezer (sellout Benny), Rikki Conner (Joanne, Maureen's lover) and chorus soloist Johanna Bonno are all standouts. The problems of mike balance (the orchestra's too loud and often drowns out the singers) and lighting (it sometimes misses the space where the actors stand) are minor annoyances and easily fixed, and they in no way harm the wonders of this work. Rent is a milestone in musical theater. Go to Country Playhouse and see why. Through January 30. 12802 Queensbury Lane, 713-467-4497. — DLG

Thunder Rock If there's such a thing as a jack-of-all-trades, surely writer Robert Ardrey, whose 1939 fantasy polemic Thunder Rock is currently on view at Company OnStage, easily fits the bill. His credentials as a playwright begin with NYC's legendary Group Theatre, that agitprop company founded in the early '30s to bring leftist politics onto the stage; his film career encompasses frothy romantic comedies, historical romances and epics like Khartoum (1966), which won him an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay. Then there are his books on anthropology and social science, African Genesis (1961) and Territorial Imperative (1966), still hotly debated to this day and said to have influenced cerebral Stanley Kubrick and twitchy Sam Peckinpah. Thunder Rock is a fantasy using politics as the magic wand. Charleston runs away from a despicable, war-mad world to take a job as a lighthouse keeper far out in Lake Michigan. Haunted by the ghosts from an 1849 shipwreck, he must confront his isolationist views. This very social-conscious play often sounds as if it were written in quotation marks and etched in granite, yet it's strangely affecting in its singular call to get off our asses and do something. Ardrey's helped by the naturalistic acting from Steve Finn (Charleston), Carl Masterson (Captain Joshua), Heather Gabriel (Miss Kirby) and John Patterson (Streeter), who make smooth whatever rocky piles Ardrey strews in the way. Through February 20. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover