The 5th Ave’s Rent is the Best Kind of Drag
The buzz was that Rentheads were amped about this local production of the musical (through August 19 at the 5th Avenue Theatre), and they certainly showed up for opening night. Judging by the enthusiastic standing ovation at the end of the show, most got what they came for.
This is a homegrown take on the musical, directed by the 5th Ave’s Associate Artistic Director, Bill Berry, and featuring some of the best local musical theatre actors we have in Seattle. Strong voices and one killer drag queen make this show a winner, even if it departs from what seasoned Rentheads are used to.
I have somehow managed to never see this iconic, Tony- and Pulitzer-winning musical that takes inspiration in story and characters from Puccini’s La Bohème. Composer Jonathan Larson wanted to bring the struggles of the down-and-out-and-up-and-coming artists he knew to “the MTV generation” (this was the mid-’90s). It worked.
The woman next to me had seen Rent six times – once in London, and five other touring productions – so I looked to her to give me the superfan take on our local version.
I’m not sure how it is in other productions, but this show was owned—lock, stock, and barrel—by Jerick Hoffer as the drag drummer, Angel. Hoffer, whose alter-ego Jinkx Monsoon hosts An Evening at Le Faux at Julia’s on Broadway, is stunning. His Angel has a wink-free elegance, grace, and dignity; he plays it for real, not for laughs. I would go back to the show just to see him. (Watch your back, Nick Garrison.)
Berry cast this one well, demonstrating yet again that Seattle has a depth of musical theatre talent that can hold its own with touring shows. Naomi Morgan plays Mimi Marquez, the tragic stripper with the heart of gold. Morgan has a great pop voice without sounding like she’s over-ornamenting in the top five of AI. She can go from soft tenderness (“Light My Candle”) to rocker belt-y (“Out Tonight”) and do it all well. Aaron F. Finley (Jesus in Village Theatre’s Jesus Christ Superstar) plays Roger, the musician mourning the loss of his girlfriend to the disease that stalks the cast in the shadows. In this role, you get to hear the incredible, powerful high notes that made him so impressive as JC.
In the “Musetta” role of Maureen Johnson, Ryah Nixon channels Jennifer Coolidge without the ditz. Her big number “Take Me or Leave Me” shows off her bluesy voice that I would like to have heard more often. Brandon O’Neill as Collins is solid, and his mournful “I’ll Cover You (reprise)” rips your heart out with its authenticity.
My neighboring Renthead’s critique was that this production sped through its paces too quickly, and didn’t let the characters develop enough. I had to agree, even as a newcomer, but that may have been opening night nerves propelling things. Also, the odd, OCD-ish movements that some of the characters displayed prior to the opening number and throughout the show felt gratuitous and perplexing.
The graffiti-laden set with scaffolding served the story well enough, though it felt overly familiar. Having just seen American Idiot a few weeks ago, it was fun to compare the two productions–though, with these two under my belt, I think I’m full up on scaffold-set/angry-youths shows for a while.