Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

Tag Archives: Dana Solimando

Two Decades Later, “Rent” Still Grabs You

"Rent" at La Mirada Theater [photo: Jason Niedle]

“Rent” at La Mirada Theater [photo: Jason Niedle]

Nearly 20 years ago, Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” a raw, updated version of the tale of “La Boheme,” burst onto the scene in New York and came to define the entire ethos of the youthful artistic fringe of the age: battling regulation, battling personal demons, fighting for truth, expression and existence in the age of AIDS. The big question, when McCoy Rigby Entertainment in La Mirada chose to revive the piece was its relevance, almost two decades later. The answer is an almost surprise yes.

The story is that of the inhabitants of a former music publishing house, turned squatter’s heaven, in the East Village of New York City. They snake in electricity and scrounge for food, refuse to pay rent to a former fellow bohemian now married rich and become their landlord. They fight to preserve the homeless encampment next door. But most of all, they fight to find and celebrate their unique visions and to live into the moment. Indeed, as these young people celebrate life many also share a virus which, in their time and their income bracket, had a high likelihood of limiting their time on earth. Hence their mantra: “no day but today”.

The music has become iconic in its own right. From the joyous “La Vie Boheme” to the rich “Seasons of Love,” the intense and angry “Take Me or Leave Me” and the achingly sad “Without You”. Indeed, without singers who can handle this intense and often blockbuster score, the show cannot shine. Fortunately the entire cast – ensemble included – is well up to the task.

Standouts include Mark Whitten as the independent filmmaker, Mark, whose project to document a year in the life of his close-knit neighborhood becomes the foundation for the entire story. He makes Mark a mixture of joy and fatalism – just a bit goofy, with an elemental love for the people and the purpose of his part of the city. Devin Archer makes Mark’s former rock star roommate, Roger, fragile and damaged, but with a particular kind of resolute purpose. As Mimi, the heroine-addicted exotic dancer Roger falls for, Cassie Simone makes much of the pathos, the manipulativeness and the openness of a young girl trying to find her space in the world.

Also impressive are John Devereaux as Tom, the professor loving the free life of the Village, and Amber Mercomes as Joanne, the young lawyer trying to balance her powerful family and the love which has swept her into bohemia. Yet the two finest performances come from its two most colorful characters. Emily Goglia gives the activist performance artist Maureen the drive and the edginess to make the show’s send-up of performance art both very funny and very serious at the same time. As the deceptively strong drag queen Angel, Lawrence Cummings delivers a personality capable of such tenderness and understanding that one experiences his loss with a touch of the visceral, echoing the characters on stage.

Director Richard Israel keeps the show vital and intense, and gives each person – even those in the background – a sense of character and place. Though not usually one to compare a new production to the first one, I admit to missing one staging moment from that original version, which used the wistful “Without You” to examine the three central relationships – all in crisis – at the same time, next to each other on stage. Here the singers Roger and Mimi bring focus center stage, while the struggle of love and disease between Angel and Tom has been relegated to separateness and distance from the center, and Maureen and Joanne are not even present. This may be, to some extent, a result of Stephen Gifford’s many-leveled set design, but I still miss that sense of unity in disparity.

Choreographer Dana Solimando has the ability to create organized and visually satisfying chaos, and here that works just as it should. Musical Director John Glaudini has the songs crisp and vital, with some vocal licks from a couple of the ensemble members providing exclamation points in some of the best-known moments.

In short, “Rent” has made it to our time with a lot of the shine still on. When you consider that its statement about art and living for the moment goes right back to an opera premiered in the late 1800s, still valid when “Rent” came along about 100 years later, why would another 20 years make that much difference? The story is not about the disease which chases them. It’s not about the squalor in which they live, or the life choices they have made. It is, rather, about the sense of love and community which makes this all work. And finding community, as well as fighting for art, are themes which transcend time.

What: “Rent” When: Through November 15, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

Passion Up Close: La Mirada’s “Spring Awakening” proves the show’s power

The cast of Spring Awakening in La Mirada [photos: Michael Lamont]

The cast of Spring Awakening in La Mirada [photos: Michael Lamont]

Like many here locally who cannot afford to travel to New York with any regularity, my first acquaintance with Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s Tony-winning musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play “Spring Awakening” was at the Ahmanson Theatre – that sizable, if generally theatrically pleasing facility. Though I found the show interesting, the large space did not allow for much intimacy with the material – something it apparently needed.

Here is how I know. A new venture at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts has created a small performance space up on that theater’s stage, where the audience surrounds the performers on three sides, and everything they do and say is up close and very personal. “Spring Awakening” is the first production in this new arrangement. Seeing it done in this way makes obvious the power and visceral connection which won the show so many fans along the way.

The story follows a group of students in the mid-stages of puberty. As their hormones begin to rule their lives, they ask questions about basic biology which are consistently shut down by the repressive atmosphere of their society. Gradually their ignorance, and the adult world’s penchant for condemnation tear these teens apart, even as they confront the many other demons hidden behind the strict conformity of their world.

If that sounds dark, it is. Still, infused with songs of such intensity that you can feel the heat rising from the stage, this nearly Greek tragedy proves compelling watching. Children are children, and so much of what this 19th century play says about humanity rings with a core of truth that young people flock to the piece out of recognition, if only of the darker parts of themselves. That is, if it is done as well as it is in La Mirada they do.

Austin MacPhee, as Melchior,leads the cast of Spring Awakenings in La Mirada

Austin MacPhee, as Melchior,leads the cast of Spring Awakenings in La Mirada

This production is blessed with a young and vibrant cast, and an aura of total commitment to every moment on the stage. Austin MacPhee helps lead the cast as Melchior, a bright, independent thinker who believes society can grow, and researches things he wants to know which adults won’t share. MacPhee balances well Melchior’s intellect and youthful impulsiveness, setting a tone for the plot line. Micaela Martinez is Wendla, Melchior’s love interest, radiating trust and a kind of inborn innocence even as she vibrates frustration with an adult world more brutal and closed than she had realized. These two define a particular tenderness which underscores the lack of it in those adults around them.

Coby Getzug creates a memorable Moritz, the boy swept away by his own physical changes, yet crumbling under the pressures of a strict academic code he cannot keep up with. Michael Rothhaar gives the severity (and occasionally, the underlying, societally controlled pathos) to the adult men the children encounter. Linda Kerns handles the powerless empathy (and occasionally, objectification-as-power motif) of the adult women. Surrounding these performers are a large chorus of young men and women, each a distinctively interesting, if usually minor part of the storyline.

Brian Kite’s direction has emphasized the intimacy of the piece, and its almost dangerous energy. The close-up nature of the performers, on this new stage format which Kite has helped to develop at La Mirada, highlights the humanity of the thing. Cheers also for Dana Solimando’s in-your-face choreography, and Rich Rose’s simple but evocative set. Indeed, the only fault to be found comes from the uncredited costuming, as Wendla’s dress proves far less period than that of all the other girls onstage, negating much of the critique her mother makes of her first, forbidden outfit.

One word of warning to some: this is a very adult piece which includes sexual situations and a few moments of partial nudity. They are endemic to the story, and make perfect sense but, as a friend once announced before a performance, those who will be offended by the content of this production will be offended by the content of this production.

But don’t be. This musical has and will continue to mark an important moment in modern theatrical history, when a new generation learned that an old form of theater was speaking directly to them. That it does so using as core a play which was written (and banned) over a century ago says even more about the universality of its themes. One can go and, to some extent, rediscover that youthful angst which so defines everyone’s memories of that time of life.

What: “Spring Awakening” When: Through March 30, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friay, 7 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Saturday Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $60 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

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