This past weekend marked three things for Lake Worth Playhouse (LWP): the opening weekend of Rent; the second performance of its 2023-2024 season, its 71st; and the first show premiering after the recent passing of its Executive Director, Stephanie Smith. Her usual chair in the theater was left reserved, adorned with a bouquet of flowers.
On opening night, Friday, October 6, South Florida Theater Magazine attended the performance at its named venue in downtown Lake Worth, and this production of the classic Rent was a bit under-visualized, possibly because of small operating budgets, but the vocal performances of the cast saved the night for this reviewer.
At no point during the night did I ever question the singing capabilities of the cast. In fact, I was highly impressed with Mark (Casey McNamara), Benny (Bruce La’Ron Melton), Joanne (Pamela S. Hankerson), Tom Collins (Matthew Kelly), Angel (Billy Hannam), Roger (Dimitri Gann), Maureen (“Noah” Stephanny Noria), and Mimi’s (Jasarie Mercedes) performances in regards to their vocal delivery. Mercedes’ embodiment of Mimi’s voice was well done, in my opinion, drawing the audience’s attention with her enunciated syllables that felt full of pain, love, and everything in-between.
On that note, I found myself humming along to every song. Songs like “Light My Candle,” “Out Tonight,” “Tango Maureen,” “Seasons of Love,” and “Life Support” play in my head like elevator music. Rent is my favorite musical, so maybe it is to be expected, but the musicality was well done in LWP’s rendition, and I believe the show is worth attending for this reason alone.
There were aspects about the spoken dialogue and body language from the actors, though, that made this performance difficult to sit through at times. My main critique in this regard comes from Gann’s performance of Roger. While his vocal performance was stellar, his body language on stage made him feel misplaced in perpetuity; it was his perpetual guitar tuning, his costume of a sleeveless, ripped top and plaid pants, and tensile interactions with Mimi, giving the appearance of an unraveling relationship rather than the raveling and intertwining relationship that it is. I looked away from the stage when he screamed “No” and dashed off the stage to find Mimi in the musical’s climax.
At the time of Rent’s original Broadway opening, the AIDS epidemic was at its peak, and here it was, making its appearance on a national stage for not only those who had been affected, but for those who did not believe. Rent helped cause real change. Advocacy has led to much fewer cases of AIDS as we approach the quarter-mark of the 21st century. This, however, was not the case in 1996. The characters sang for their today because there was no tomorrow.
My last bit of critique stems from how this production translated the message of fair housing rights and HIV/AIDS. The static set was beautifully designed, but it never changed, which caused problems for me to visualize the setting of the scene. The restaurant scene and corresponding “La Vie Boheme” appeared as if it were unfolding in the apartment of Roger and Mark. Perhaps an artistic decision, but ultimately one that affected how I perceived the show, the AIDS crisis depicted on stage was subtle and was left to the audience to infer. There were brief mentions of HIV preventative medication, and even the scene of Angel succumbing to it, but the feeling from the actors’ positionalities, dying off to the side, singing in the front, made this particular aspect feel underdeveloped in this production.
Rent is currently on now at Lake Worth Playhouse through October 22. You can grab your tickets here (https://lakeworthplayhouse.org/tickets_seating/). Don’t miss these incredible, timeless songs from some incredible voices!