The College of the Desert (COD) hits all the right notes in its compelling production of “RENT” that opened last Friday at the on- campus Pollock Theatre.
The rock musical loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera “La Boheme”, has been updated to 1980’s New York City, and explores the lives a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive in New York City’s East Village during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s.
The COD production with libretto, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, crisply and deftly directed by Mark Almy, features seventeen talented actor/singers that grittily bring to life their stories of survival, hope and dreams; defining what it means to be human in the process.
The story as it unfolds revels in a 20th century version of living the New York City bohemian life style complete with its alienation, protests, drug and sex-fueled existence, may not be everyone’s favorite cup of tea for those over fifty, but no one can deny the talent, dedication, and commitment of this cast who wonderfully lay out, warts and all, what it means to live and be true to one’s self; risking alienation from family, friends and ‘traditional society’ in general; even death.
Finely nuanced high octane performances flow from the principals: Shafik Wahab as Mark Cohen, a documentary filmmaker who chronicles the stories of his fellow bohemians; Christian Quevedo as Roger Davis, delivers a powerful portrayal as an ex-drug addict struggling to remain clean when his girlfriend, a seductive and poignant Allegra Angelo as the conflicted Mimi Marquez, has different plans for their relationship. It’s an astonishing performance by Angelo and one of her best yet in the Valley. Meagan Van Dyke as the bi-sexual Maureen Johnson is a visual delight with a voice and figure to match. Alisha Bates as Joanne Jefferson, lover to Maureen can seduce with a belting voice or the purring voice of a kitten.
Aaron Anzaldua as Angel Schunard, a street hustler/drag queen meets and falls in love with Anthony Martinez as Tom Collins, a street-person where both become a compelling couple within society’s outcasts. Martinez’s portrayal tugs at the heart with his tender commitment and devotion to their relationship. Dion Khan as Benny Coffin III, renders an understated performance as the landlord and friend of the bohemian renters who can’t pay their rent, thus risking landing on the street once again. Strong support comes from the entire ensemble cast that display individual talent and memorable moments within a team framework.
All of the cast members boast strong voices and deliver nicely defined on-stage characterizations thanks to the seamless and sensitive direction of Almy whose traffic management skills keep this energetic and potently performed rock musical on point. There is no substitute for experience and talent, plus a personal vision brought by the director who in this case has performed and directed over 90 roles in Opera and musical theatre all over the world.
The technical credits are always well executed at COD, but on opening night a power failure just as the production began left two quick-thinking leading actors (Wahab and Quevedo) in the dark. Actors are never at a loss for words. The two merely vamped ‘til ready, explaining the story of “RENT” to the appreciative audience patiently waiting for the stage lights to reappear – which they did! That’s the beauty of live theatre. Every moment is constantly evolving on the stage.
Music Director Scott Smith, is a bit of a treasure at the college. An alum of some twenty years, his direction and performance on keyboard, along Anthony Arizaga on guitar; Mikael Jacobson on Bass; and Brad Vaughn on drums provide all the musical firepower needed to empower the actors.
The choreography of Shea New is sensual and sexy throughout. In the “bacchanal” scene, the choreography is highly suggestive but is in keeping with the freedom and abandon of the bohemian life style of the day. It’s provocative and a creative way of getting the audience to pay attention to what is happening on stage with the story.
“RENT” is one of the most intriguing and entertaining productions produced this season by the COD theatre department. Don’t Miss It! There are only three more performances: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, November, 27, 28, and 29. The curtain on Friday and Saturday is at 7 PM. The Sunday curtain is at 3 PM. For tickets call the Box Office at 760-773-2574.