Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Director/Choreographer – Tim Bennett
Music Director – James Cunningham
Scenic/Lighting Design – Samuel Rushen
Costume Design – Tammy Spencer
Sound Design – Kyle McCord
Production Stage Manager – Jamie Grossman
Roger Davis – John Arthur Greene
Mark Cohen – Noah Putterman
Maureen Johnson – Mackenzie Bell
Mimi Marquez – Kalyn West
Tom Collins – Maurice Verrett Johnson
Benjamin Coffin III – Calvin Scott Roberts
Joanne Jefferson – Phyre Hawkins
Angel Schunard – Tyler Hardwick
Mrs. Cohen/Ensemble – Monique Abry
Mr. Jefferson/Pastor/Ensemble – Winston Daniels
Mrs. Jefferson/Ensemble – Stefanie Tovar
The Man/Executive/Gordon/Ensemble – Craig Glen Foster
Alexi Darling/Roger's Mom/Ensemble – Katelyn Helene Johnson
Waiter/Ensemble – Keith J. Warren
Paul/Ensemble – Kyle Igneczi
Reviewed Performance: 2/27/2016
Reviewed by Jeremy William Osborne, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
1996 brought an artistic renaissance to musical theatre. With the usual revival of classics like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, and Victor/Victoria a new, exciting musical burst onto the scene. Set in the East Village of New York City, RENT tells the unforgettable story of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling and learning to survive, fall in love, find their voices and live for today. This rock opera, penned by Jonathan Larsen, quickly became one of the most beloved and longest running Broadway musicals of all time, winning multiple Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. The 20th anniversary is a perfect time to pay homage to a modern masterpiece and, although very little original concepts are present in the production, Casa Manana does an excellent job bringing RENT to life.
The set at Casa Manana is incredibly similar to the iconic Broadway production. Sparse scaffolding decorated with Christmas lights, chain link fencing, a couple tables and folding chairs comprise the majority of it. It's a faithful recreation but not an original concept. The design gives many options for entrances, exits, and positions. Actors often climb through gaps in the scaffolding pipes or balance on them to create a great image.
Costumes for RENT are the thrift store purchases one would expect a group of starving artists would wear. Tammy Spencer does a good job making most of the cast look shabby while avoiding a hipster chic fashion. Also, her ability to separate the character of Angel by giving him a better style of wardrobe than the rest is effective in conveying the character's noted fashion sense.
Lighting is excellent. It's simple in that there are not many noticeable moving lights, aside from the hand operated spot lights. This give the show a vintage look much like the low budget original production had. Color choice for lighting is incredible throughout the show. During Without You having a yellow pool, blue pool, and red pool for three different scenes to play out at once greatly added to the enjoyment of the action and singing.
Music Director James Cunningham led an outstanding cast of singers and band to a first-rate musical performance. Some concessions are made, like Kalyn West singing a technically sound, full throated note instead of the signature howls during Out Tonight, but it's not detrimental to the pleasure of the music. The ensemble harmonizes perfectly.
Casting RENT is often a difficult process of finding performers who are the right combination of singer and stage presence. Most difficult is finding the rock star, Roger Davis. John Arthur Greene comes to Casa Manana with a body of impressive Broadway credits. His characterization of a self-pitying, former addict, searching for meaning in his life is engaging, although his singing, reminiscent of Mark Hoppus from Blink 182, may be the weakest of the cast.
Noah Putterman takes on the ever present story teller, Mark Cohen. He does a good job playing the soft-spoken thread between scenes. The story is told through the premise of the movie Mark is making. Putterman, although always near the forefront of the action with many solos and important lines, is quite forgettable in his performance. There is nothing about it that stands out but his support throughout the show strengthens each scene he is in.
Kalyn West gives a fine portrayal of Mimi Marquez, the heroine addicted, exotic dancer, girlfriend to Roger. Aside from the previously mentioned vocal concession in Out Tonight the performance of that song is extraordinary. She is bright and vivacious, climbing throughout the scaffolding, sliding down a pole like a fireman, and providing an overall provocative performance. Mimi's decline in Act II is expertly played with lower energy than seen earlier in the show and a more closed body presentation.
Mackenzie Bell and Phyre Hawkins make a fantastic pair as Maureen Johnson and Joanne Jefferson. Most want to make the character more outrageous than any that came before and try to hijack scenes in which they are involved. Bell thankfully avoids the common trap of overplaying Maureen. She's strong and brazen without being overbearing. Hawkins performance is equally strong but sober making her the perfect foil. Neither tries to outplay the other and in doing so form a symbiotic relationship that is thoroughly enjoyable to see. All this is demonstrated with the stellar performance of Take Me or Leave Me.
The closest thing RENT has to a villain, other than HIV/AIDS, is Benjamin Coffin III played Calvin Scott Roberts. Roberts depiction of “Benny” is subtle but genuine and effective. The camaraderie sitting with Noah Putterman and Maurice Verrett Johnson after Angel's funeral comes off as natural.
The entire show hinges on the presentation of Angel Dumont Schunard and his relationship with Tom Collins. The two are the emotional soul of the show and, when played well, pull at the heart strings of the entire audience. Tim Bennett may not have found two actors better suited for the roles than Tyler Hardwick and Maurice Verrett Johnson. Hardwick, especially, gives a sincere performance that is the highlight of the production. The audience's attention can't help but be drawn to him anytime Angel appears on the stage, thanks partially to the excellent costumes by Tammy Spencer and to Hardwick's humorous reactions and mannerisms. Johnson is lovable as Tom Collins. His soulful performance of I'll Cover You (Reprise) is a show stopper.
It would be easy to pass this off as “Yeah, that is RENT. We saw it before. Here it is again.” However, that would be unfair to the hard work and professionalism put into Casa Manana's production. Renthead's should not miss this short engagement. There are great music to hear and performances to see.
Casa Manana, 3101 W Lancaster Ave Ft. Worth, TX 76107
Runs through March 6
Remaining performance dates and times are: Tuesday, March 1 at 7:30pm, Wednesday, March 2 at 7:30pm, Thursday, March 3at 7:30pm, Friday, March 4 at 8:00pm, Saturday, March 5 at 8:00pm, and Sunday, March 6 at 2:00pm. Tickets prices range from $41 to $76. For tickets and information, go to www.casamanana.org or call Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000. Tickets are also available at the Casa Manana Theatre box office, 3101 W. Lancaster Avenue in Fort Worth.