Encore Michigan

Dio’s production of ‘Rent’ is fresh, vibrant and a must-see.

Review August 27, 2022 Julie Linderleaf

PINCKNEY, MI–There is a common argument about whether the movie “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie or not, and now I wonder if RENT! falls into that discussion too. I walked away from The Dio’s current production ready to put up my tree and watch the movie version again. 

A powerful musical written by Jonathan Larson, who died just before he would have seen it premiere, won a Pulitzer Prize. The story begins in New York City on Christmas Eve in the height of a different kind of pandemic: AIDS and rampant intravenous drug use. The musical follows eight artistic youth through one whole year dealing with love, loss, and the realization that we might just be renting it all. 

Director Steve DeBruyne has created an inventive and creative version of this moving production. Using a multi-leveled set expertly created by Technical Director and set and light designer Matt Tomich, DeBruyne often used multiple scenes on different levels, often showcasing all of the fifteen talented actors. 

The storyline moves around eight main characters for one year or “525,600 minutes” in their lives. If you know the musical, you just sang that number, didn’t you?

There are aspects of Rent that definitely feel like the 90s. But as we still struggle to come out of the Covid pandemic, it’s interesting to remember that this is not America’s first trip to the pandemic rodeo. It’s worth pondering how both pandemics have divided communities and the whole country. Those who were infected with AIDS were so often vilified by the non LGBTQ population, believing that somehow they were being punished by their own so-called aberrant lifestyle. Covid has divided the country through the politics of nationalism and tribal libertarianism–those who believe vaccines and masking should not be forced on anyone vs. those who believe everyone should be vaxxed and masked for the good of the society. Disease and illness has the power to unite and divide.

In the Dio production, James Fischer is a perfect match for the character Mark–a filmmaker dealing with the dilemma of making art for art’s sake or selling out for the money. He is also dealing with a recent heartbreak from his girlfriend Maureen leaving him for a woman. 

Maureen, played by Ash Moran, and her lawyer girlfriend Joanne, played by Jayla Fletcher, are power performers in this show. Maureen is a performance artist fighting for a performance and living space at reasonable rent. Ash’s “Over the Moon” performance got the entire audience to moo with her!  She also fearlessly moons the audience during “La Vie Boheme.” The on again off again hot tempered lovers share a powerhouse duet, in the song “Take me baby.” 

Benny or Benjamin Coffin the Third–once a close friend and roommate of Mark, Maureen, Tom Collins, and Roger–recently married a wealthy woman and bought the building they all live in and buildings around it. Louie Chen plays the hardened landlord trying to manipulate his friends with free rent if protests against him are stopped. The ensemble is very strong, especially Sarah Brown (Mark’s Mother and others) and Jared Bugbee as Steve and others.

Mark currently shares the disputed and run down loft space with Roger, played by Tyler J. Messinger, who spends the show trying to “write the one great song before,” he dies from the AIDS virus he got from his past drug use and ex-girlfriend.  He battles with the idea of a shortened life, even more so when he meets Mimi, played by Alaina Kerr, an addict dancer from the Cat Scratch Club, in a scene in which the power is turned off in the building to try and manipulate the building occupants to pay rent or move out. Even with their immediate attraction,  they have a rocky relationship until Roger sees that Mimi, too, takes meds for HIV. Roger and Mimi’s relationship dissolves when she goes to Benny to fix the building issues. Roger can’t see past their past. With their break-up,  Kerr delivers an emotional “Without you” as the cast deals with loss of more than just love.

The cast experiences the loss of Angel, played by Xavier Sarabia debuting at the Dio. Angel is one of the first queer roles in theatrical history to die on stage from AIDS. Angel, in the 90’s, was labeled a drag queen in some lines and one of the first shows that deal with transgendering issues with pronouns where some lines have the cast members fumble over the he/she at Angel’s funeral. The one who suffers most is Tom Collins, played by Mike Sandusky. He meets Angel on the first Christmas Eve after getting beat up and robbed in the New York streets. Angel immediately takes him home and cleans him up. Sarabia does a killer job dancing and jumping on tables with heels.

Technically, the entire cast is costumed perfectly.  Costumer Norma Polk brought back the early 90’s with her costuming choices. With these set characters that have a certain look, a costumer almost has to try to mimic it. Polk does this, but also adds her own flavor. Roger’s rocker costume and Angel’s “La Vie Boheme”  neon flower dress keep the traditional character feel, but adds something extra. Specific costume pieces complete the characters–from Mark’s striped scarf to Mimi’s jacket to Collins’ leather jacket and skull cap, to Angel’s short Santa coat dress. The entire cast doesn’t miss a beat as they sing, dance and jump on top of the steel tables that are ingeniously used as various different set pieces. Michelle Marzejon Green is choreographer and Grace Nulson is assistant choreographer.

DeBruyne said his theatre naturally has the second level, but usually creates sets that cover it. With this cast of 15, DeBruyne expertly used every inch of the graffitied set to his advantage.  Working with industrial metal tables, ladders, and a rolling staircase, the production team creates different entrances and exits and levels. In keeping the vibe of the lower east-side of Manhattan in the early 1990s, they even found an actual payphone! 

The show cycles back around to Christmas Eve where Maureen and Joanne bring an overdosing Mimi to Roger and Mark’s loft, after she had been missing and relapsing. Mimi and Roger confess their undying love to each other in the emotional song “Your eyes.”  Mark concludes the show with the documentary he worked on for the entire year, showcasing a great smiling image of Sarabia. The audience was already standing for an ovation before the last song even concluded. Rent! will obviously be one of the audience favorites at the Dio.

There are still tickets available, but they are going fast! Larson’s Pulitzer Prize winner Rent! will be staged through October 2. And even though it’s not in the Christmas canon, it might need to be added! Especially with the Homeless Chorus and their numerous belting out of “Christmas Bells.” Just remember you won’t be “hungry and frozen” at The Dio with dining and entertainment with the Signature Chicken and New York-style Potatoes.

Week of 6/5/2023

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