Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Flawed, but Fervent Youth

Flawed, but Fervent Youth
By Tom Wachunas

As local print media has already reported, the folks at the North Canton Playhouse have been rightfully proud and giddy with excitement these days. They became the first community theater in Northeast Ohio to land the now iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical, “Rent,” since performing rights were released in April. The musical, which was written by Jonathan Larson and inspired by Puccini’s opera, “La boheme,” ran for three performances at Canton’s Palace Theatre July 24 -26. It is an explosive story of an intimate community of struggling artists living in gritty East Village Manhattan, where poverty, drugs, and AIDS form a harrowing backdrop against visions of love and success.

Let’s start with the bad news. At the heart of the problems in this particular production, directed by Marci Lynn Saling with musical direction by Brenton Cochran, was an unresolved inconsistency. The story’s searing emotionality and quick, spirited dialogue demands much of the performers (as both actors and singers) in the way of succinct vocal delivery. And it was largely in that realm where the core ensemble of characters was disappointingly uneven in meeting those demands. The result of such shortcomings was that too much of the lyrical content was lost. This was not due to technical problems in amplification, or competition with the very fine, balanced five-piece band. It’s about the singing. Possessing remarkable, raw vocal talent, which was in great abundance here, is not in itself the same as truly mastering the nuanced and professional quality of presentation to which any presumably serious singer aspires.

The much-touted youthfulness of so many of the cast members here points to not just their ages in years. Perhaps they may still be too young in the disciplines of sustained vocal training to step into such large roles with unwavering confidence. To varying degrees, much of the singing seemed to come from the tops of their throats and nasal cavities, particularly at times when the volume was most intense. In those instances, melodies were consequently not sung so much as shouted, screamed, and otherwise blurted with all the brute force of bullet fire. In many other moments, enunciation seemed to be a lost art. The beginnings and endings of phrases were simply bitten off and swallowed into indecipherable murmurs. Where was the diction coaching?
To be fair, the big vocal numbers calling for the entire company were stunning, particularly the show’s soaring anthem, “Seasons of Love,” delivered here with thunderous urgency.

And there’s more good news. What saved this production from becoming too much of a sophomoric foray into “the big time” was its commanding and monumental theatrical energy. What the performers lacked in consistent vocal finesse they more than made up for by embracing the narrative content with an endearing mix of unbridled joie de vivre and chutzpah. All of their portrayals were uncannily ardent and sincere, as if they had personally lived out their characters’ lives. Particularly memorable were Allen Seeley as the brooding guitarist/songwriter, Roger; Danielle Dorfman as the irrepressibly funny and brash performance artist, Maureen; Alex Garrard as the flamboyant cross-dressing drummer, Angel, who falls in love with Tom Collins, an academic played by Joseph M. Haladey III; and Alexx Culbertson, who plays the sassy club dancer, Mimi, with a remarkable self-assurance well beyond her 16 years.

In the end, what resonated most was the sense that all of the performers genuinely loved not only playing on stage, but also the people they were playing, and by extension, the intrinsic message of “Rent.” This is an uncompromising and at times outright disturbing look at life styles and life choices. The dense story line provides moments of real comedy in bittersweet counterpoint to real tragedy, all driven by abiding hope. It is, ultimately, the story of people who, realizing they are tenants and stewards of only one day at a time, embrace each others’ demons and dreams equally, with an unflinching desire to heal and be healed. One day at a time, in a place where love, not judgment, rules. And it is, now more than ever, a story for our time.

Photo: left-to-right, Allen Seeley, Alexx Culbertson, and Corey Gentry, rehearsing a scene from the North Canton Playhouse production of “Rent” at Canton Palace Theatre.

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