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Incline’s “Rent” Not Your Typical Holiday Hit

Review by Kenneth Stern of Rent: Incline Theater

Lisa Glover as Mimi in Incline's "Rent"

Lisa Glover as Mimi in Incline’s “Rent”

Will Rent, now playing at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, be the hit of the holiday theater season? Timing – and quality – are everything and Tim Perrino, executive artistic director, has delivered in spades, slotting Rent for December in his theater’s inaugural District Series. The quality of this show might make the producers think about making it a new Christmas tradition.

It’s Christmas Eve the entire first act, with a plastic lit Santa on the stoop and strings of Christmas lights strung around the many windows of the warehouse the crew of artists and musicians calls home. Peer through the swirling late night fog at the ensemble cast meandering aimlessly through an East Village street, and you almost see Scrooge’s 1840s London. That’s a fitting mood for these near employed, near homeless bohemians. Denny Reed, lighting and sound designer, Brett Bowling, set design, and Caren Young, costume designer, capture and project a down and struggling section of New York. The fellow with the glass cleaner and squeegee is a particularly nice touch.

A Christmas Carol is as much a story of want as it is of plenty, and so is Rent, whether folks are struggling with work, income, love, or their health (addiction and HIV/AIDS are at the surface of this 1996 play). As leads Mark and Roger sing near the end “You’re living in America / Where it’s like the Twilight Zone / And when you’re living in America / At the end of the millennium / You’re what you own.” Like Dickens (or the librettists of Puccini’s La Boheme, on which this rock opera was based), the script from  Jonathan Larson (book, music and lyrics) sympathizes with youthful idealists unable to pay the rent.

This is equally an ensemble piece, and everyone bounds on stage at the start, climbing scaffolding and scattering like mice to every window of the two story warehouse facade. Like Puccini’s opera, the plot centers around Roger (Tyler Kuhlman, blond and rugged), an HIV-positive musician and Mimi (Lisa Glover, dark, and lithe, with a powerful voice and a supple body), both HIV positive and struggling with heroine addiction. Also HIV positive is the cross-dressing Angel (Christopher Carter, even better in wig, boots and skirt than pants).  Mark (Kelcey Steele), Roger’s roommate, Jimmy Olsen-like, has his film camera pointed in nearly every scene. He is narrator and navigator, but not leader, though omnipresent and singing strongly throughout in duets with Roger as well as Joanne (Allison Muennich), now Mark’s ex-girlfriend’s partner. Their “Tango: Maureen” stands out among the many well performed songs.

The strong individual performances are matched by the ensemble. The primarily youthful cast is energetic, yet measured, throughout. They are well served by director and choreographer Matthew Wilson. Crisp, fast-paced choreography seems to be a Cincinnati Landmark Production hallmark. The music direction by Michael Kennedy (who also conducted and played keyboards) contributed to the smooth and seamlessly sung production.

Rent was the American musical of the 1990s and Wilson, Kennedy, cast, and the musicians nail the production, as does the production staff. We get mid-90s Greenwich Village: the homeless, the entrepreneurs, the dealers and developers, and in one prescient scene, cops taking away an African American, with the moment being captured on film.

The second act opens with the ensemble singing the show’s best-known song, “Seasons of Love” (which contemplates the ways the 525,600 minutes in a year can be measured), lined up across the stage. Act II marches quickly through that year, from New Year’s Eve to the last scene, once again at Roger’s and Mark’s apartment on Christmas Eve.

Despite the dark themes, this is a big American musical. The cast received a standing ovation from the near capacity opening night audience. I imagine this Incline production will have many sold out performances.