If you are one of the millions of Broadway fans who have already seen Jonathan Larson’s brilliant musical Rent (like me!), I can guarantee that you have never seen it done like this. If you missed seeing Rent when it occupied New York City’s Nederlander Theatre from 1996 through 2008 (over 5,000 performances), or during the numerous national tours, then I highly recommend seeing this amazing musical, winner of the 1996 Tony for Best Musical, now marvelously presented by Toby’s Dinner Theater of Columbia.
Directors Toby Orenstein and Kevin McAllister, with help from an extremely talented ensemble cast, beautifully showcase Larson’s memorable music and dialogue about a group of struggling young artists and musicians living in the late 1990s in New York City’s rough Lower East Side as they build friendships, romances and, together, try to survive the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS.
The show opens with Mark Cohen (Nick Lehan), an independent filmmaker and the narrator of the show, shooting an unscripted documentary in the apartment that he shares with his roommate Roger, fabulously played by Greg Twomey, a struggling singer/songwriter and reformed drug addict who is HIV positive. Both Lehan and Twomey quickly engage the audience with their strong, full voices as they sing “Rent,” the first of many amazing ensemble songs. Lehan and Twomey, who have solid voices and are well cast, are supported by a talented ensemble cast whose thunderous vocals harmonize beautifully in the small theater.
Twomey perfectly captures the gritty, emotional Roger as he sings one of the show’s biggest songs, “One Song Glory.” His chemistry with love interest Mimi Marquez (MaryLee Adams), an HIV positive drug addict, seems genuine and sexy in their duets, “Light My Candle” and the emotional “Without You.” Adams’ voice is strong and clear voice as she slinks and gyrates around the stage in her powerful solo “Out Tonight.”
Another stand-out performance came from Kevin McAllister’s brilliant portrayal of Tom Collins, a homosexual rebel with AIDS, and the love interest of young drag queen, Angel Dumott Schunard (Bryan Daniels). McAllister’s warm, powerful baritone and expressive acting continuously lights up the stage as he sings audience favorites: “I’ll Cover You,” “I’ll Cover You (Reprise),” and the ensemble song “Santa Fe.” His amazing vocals are thrilling and were my favorite of the show. Along the same lines, the on stage chemistry between Collins and Angel is enjoyable to watch and seems natural. Daniels, though not the strongest singer in the cast, kept up the high energy needed to play Angel and fully delivered with a great dance sequence, wearing 5 inch platform heels and a short sexy skirt, in “Today For You.”
Maureen Johnson, fabulously played by Mary Searcy, does not make her initial appearance until the end of the first act. However, Searcy’s side-splitting performance of “Over the Moon” was one of the best I have ever seen. Although the two metal tables she stands on during the song made some distracting popping noises, her exaggerated and over the top rendition was superb. Maureen’s lesbian lover, Joanne Jefferson, in a strong performance by Heather Marie Beck, is hilarious in the fun duet “Tango Maureen.” In the second act, both Searcy and Beck showcase their top notch vocals in the powerful duet “Take Me or Leave Me.”
Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia, a theater in the round, is a truly unique experience where the audience is seated at tables facing a small circular stage on which most of the scenes take place. However, a significant amount of the action also occurs on top of (and below) four metal structures, reminiscent of fire escape scaffolding, located above the entrances and exits of the theater. The actors climb on, dance around and sing from these structures as well as on the main stage, giving the audience the very exciting feeling of being right in the middle of the show. Kurt Boehm’s fabulous choreography coupled with Toby’s intimate size engages the audience (especially if you are lucky enough to be seated on the stage floor) in a way that I have not experienced before.
As a Broadway fanatic who has seen Rent many times, the current production at Toby’s breathes new life into an already fabulous show. It is a great production and worth a trip to Columbia!
Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Toby Orenstein and Kevin McAllister
Music direction by Christopher Youstra
Choreography by Kurt Boehm
Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theater of Columbia
Reviewed by Sabrina Daly
Rent is playing through November 14, 2010 at Toby’s Dinner Theater of Columbia.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.