CONWAY — No one can say Arts in Motion doesn't have ambition.
The theater company opens its production of Jonathan Larson's “Rent” at Kennett High School's Loynd Auditorium in North Conway, N.H tonight, Thursday, Aug. 5. It seemed like a fool's task to take on a show of this size, weight and musical complexity with a cast of mostly high school age performers, and yet, against the odds, the production has come together surprisingly well.
“Rent” is based on Giacomo Puccini's opera “La bohème” and centers on a group of starving artists attempting to create and survive in New York's Lower East Side. The impoverished artists of “La bohème” were plagued by tuberculous. In “Rent” it is HIV and AIDS that the characters battle against.
There's a large cast with several key players. Mark (Matt Stoker) and Roger (Paul Allen) are a struggling filmmaker and songwriter, respectfully. Mimi (Taylor Hill) is a exotic dancer with a drug problem who Roger falls for. Maureen (Hanna Paven) is Mark's ex-girlfriend and a performance artist currently dating Joanne (Morgaine Andrews). Tom Collins (Chris Madura) is a philosophy professor that falls for the drag queen Angel (Ezra Alves). Benny (Ged Owen) was Mark, Roger and Maureen's roommate, but sold out and is now their landlord.
“Rent” is a rock opera and although there are minimal scenes of dialogue this show — like a true opera — nearly everything is sung with a total of 42 songs. This is no easy feat for a seasoned cast of professionals, let alone a group of young amateurs. Director Mary Bastoni-Rebmann has worked with the cast for months getting their singing to a very high level of quality.
Disclaimer: I saw the final dress rehearsal and that night there were technical difficulties with the sound and for large portions of the show the live band on the stage drowned out the actors. This was frustrating because when I could hear the actors I was impressed with how good they sounded. I was assured by Bastoni-Rebmann that the sound issue would be worked out by opening, so this shouldn't be an issue.
The set designed by Tom Rebmann is an impressive recreation of a New York street that includes fire escapes and scaffolding. The costumes by Shelly Paven also bring a level on authenticity to the production. This doesn't look like a cheap knock off of “Rent.”
“Rent” represents the ethnically and sexually diverse mosaic that is New York. Arts in Motion's doesn't achieve that, but its production, for the most part, is well cast. The show deals with some heavy subject matters, and, while some of the actors struggle with the material, they bravely tackle it. Big ensemble numbers like “Rent” and “La Vie Bohème” are admirably mounted and performed.
Allen's Roger is a highlight. He has a powerhouse voice and broods well. His scenes with Hill's Mimi have a genuine tenderness and emotional rawness. They share several duets including “Light My Candle” and “I Should Tell You” that work quite well.
Paven's Maureen gets to perform the fantastically bizarre and funny “Over the Moon” and it is an excellent showcase for her. Throughout the show, Stoker's Mark is our narrator and he makes a good guide. His best song is “Tango: Maureen” with Andrews' Joanne.
Alves is miscast as Angel. He seems silly instead of sensual in numbers like “Today 4 U,” but does create some sweet scenes with Madura. When things turn dark for this character, Alves rises to the occasion and creates genuine pathos.
The show's second act is marked by heavy emotions that this production does reach. A scene involving the memoriam of a dead character is deeply affecting. The strongest song in the production is the heartbreaking “Goodbye Love” in which several of the key relationship end at the same time.
This isn't a flawless production of “Rent,” but to attempt a community production of this show and do it justice at all is an achievement in itself. I know that seems like faint praise, but any fan of “Rent” knows it isn't.
“Rent” runs Thursday through Sunday until Aug. 15. All seats are $15 and can be purchase at www.artsinmotiontheater.com or at the door.