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"Rent" show #841

Updated: May 11, 2022

It’s never lost on me that when a theatre group chooses to take on Rent, there is a tall order to be filled. This Pulitzer-winning, iconic musical is beloved to the deepest of cores by many theatre lovers. Jonathan Larson’s story hits home with so many populations on topics such as the AIDS crisis, sexual identity, friendship, being an artist with a dream, being an addict with no support, and the list continues. However, where the difficulty comes in is that this musical, by nature of its creator passing before its off-Broadway premiere—which may add to its beloved iconic-ness—is an unfinished piece. Every time I encounter this show, I am reminded of how great it is at its core, how rocking the music is, how beautiful the lyrics and anthems are, but that it takes a group of committed, connected, and consummate artists to make sense of the plots which need some creative interpretation in how to handle them. I am pleased to report that Fresno State University Theatre has, as the youth say, understood the assignment and filled this order to the brim.

Unlike many Rents I have seen prior, director J. Daniel Herring prioritizes acting the story above just featuring great vocalists. This cast has the musical chops to deliver Larson’s demanding rock score, but it’s the storytelling which is front-and-center. Josh Plowman balances the demands of the role of Mark—sometimes narrator, sometimes leading character—well by committing to Mark’s commentary and quips while diving into the character track when he chooses to give up selling out to Buzzline in pursuit of his filmmaking. He shares a smashing duet opposite a well-voiced, committed Luke Robert Nothstein as Roger in “What You Own.” Nothstein delivers the goods in a passionate “One Song Glory” and lets the rock-riffs roll in “Another Day” and “Halloween.” Andrew B. Mickelson provides great foil to the heroes as the most-of-the-show-money-grubbing villain, Benjamin Coffin III, by giving plenty of smug looks and spitting the degrading insults towards his former friends.

(Josh Plowman (Mark); Photo credit: Miguel Gastelum/University Theatre)

Alexis Elisa Macedo and Jason Bionda, playing Mimi and Angel, respectively, make full use of Jeff Hunter’s expansive set and Josh Montgomery’s lively choreography in “Out Tonight” and “La Vie Boheme.” Macedo’s youthful, flirtatious energy in her Mimi gives the journey with Northstein’s temperamental Roger a palpable arc ending with their final heart-wrenching hug. Bionda’s Angel gives audiences plenty to cheer for, especially with their swell vocals in “Santa Fe” and “Contact.” While on “Contact,” Herring does away with the traditional staging and makes a bold choice (not to be spoiled in this review) which pays off in droves by giving the principals an elongated moment of shocking vulnerability--a choice I found to be incredibly impactful.

There is an energy build to this Rent which is felt but not made obvious until Jimmy Haynie stops the show with an almighty solo turn at “I’ll Cover You (reprise).” Haynie’s vocals all show long are booming and, again, acting focused while musically on point. However, it’s this triumphant moment in act two that makes the journey leading to the lament just a delicious appetizer to the impeccable main course. Haynie’s chemistry with Bionda accomplishes what the Angel/Collins pairing—in my opinion, the best written relationship in the musical—should accomplish: an example of a purely-loving-amidst-the-complications relationship, one that can exist if you’re with the right person at the right time with the right mindset and openness to their love.

(Center: Kathryn Deanna Andres (Maureen) and Cast of Rent; Photo credit: Miguel Gastelum/University Theatre)

Julia Isabella Prieto is a great Joanne, earning the laughs and nailing the vocals in “Tango Maureen” opposite a mensch-like Plowman in the duet. Prieto teams up with Kathryn Deanna Andres as Maureen for a dynamite “Take Me or Leave Me.” Andres nails Maureen’s monologue at the Protest by imbuing equal parts quirky artist and enthused lover of people. Featured standouts come from Madeline Nelson as a bubbly Mark’s Mom, Nwachukwu as a kills-them-with-kindness, charming Alexi Darling, and Anthony TeNyenhuis as a caring Paul and the Restaurant Man, where he gives a well-acted backstory with this non-paying artist group, garnering some laughs and sympathy.

Under Regina Harris’s mood-setting lighting design are plenty of moments for Herring to portray intimacy within the large proscenium of the University Theatre, while still finding times to permeate the rock-style excitement Larson’s score requires. Rent is nothing without its easy-to-identify costumes, and Tamrah Sales does not disappoint, whether it’s a beautiful Pussy Galore ensemble for Angel or those bygone light blue jeans we 90’s-kids (and older) still remember and are trying to bring back. Larson’s gift to us musical theatre fans was a story which is so specific that it affects so many of us at different points in our lives for different reasons each time. Fresno State University Theatre’s gift to us is this unified, committed production of a rock musical gem. Go see this show!

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