'Rent' review: 'La Vie Boheme!' Iconic musical rocks The Dio
Courtesy of Michele Anliker Photography
There’s a reason The Dio’s latest production of “Rent” is nearly sold out for the remainder of its run and that’s because two-and-a-half decades later, Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking musical still finds ways of resonating with an audience. Plus local theatergoers know The Dio is synonymous with exceptional performances and a delicious meal served prior to the show. Having seen “Rent” probably more times than any show in my lifetime, it holds a soft spot in my heart as I’m sure it does for many patrons who diligently keep their eyes peeled any time a production manifests; so whether it’s the first or the 525,600th time, the Dio’s production pulls out the stops with an electric ensemble who sound breathtaking even as the omission of a live orchestra and the use of audio tracks can sometimes hold them back.
That’s not to say any of them sound bad, on the contrary, Lisa Merte’s music direction is sound and nobody in the production sings off-key. But you’re left to wonder how this incredibly talented group would sound if they had the backing of a live orchestra, which would allow more freedom (vamping etc) and perhaps nail down minor timing mechanics. Of course, it has more to do with spatial awareness and when you’re already working with a large ensemble in a condensed environment, it’s bound to happen. Nevertheless, the Steve DeBruyne-directed show won’t disappoint frequent Dio goers or new ones, but again, I hope you have tickets pre-booked because pickings are slim.
The story of “Rent” still remains a timeless staple with the classic, all-inclusive opening number (“Rent”) setting the tone as the musical is told from the gaze of an upstart documentary filmmaker named Mark (played here by James Fischer in a delicate and perfectly geeky portrayal). He captures (via an old, janky video camera) a wild group of bohemians struggling to pay rent, find love and fulfill their artistic desires on the east side of New York City while the AIDS epidemic rages circa 1996. Mark’s roommate and best friend, Roger (Tyler J Messinger - bringing solid pipes and character inflection to the role) is working on a “bittersweet, evocative song” inspired by his girlfriend's suicide that he’s afraid won’t be finished before his HIV diagnosis kills him.
Then we have Mimi (Alaina Kerr - jaw dropping and versatile) an exotic dancer dealing with her own addictions; Angel (Xaiver Sarabia - outstanding) a humble, gives-no-shits drag queen who falls hard for Tom Collins (Mike Sandusky - first rate), a software developer and buds with Mark and Roger. Elsewhere, Maureen (Ash Moran - tons of fun, especially as she tries soliciting “Moos!” during her signature monologue), Mark’s activist ex-girlfriend who has since ditched him for Joanne (Jayle Fletcher - both hilarious and commanding), something that provides excellent context for the “Tango Maureen.” Collectively, they help round out the core group of characters surviving within the NYC suburbs as Benjamin Coffin III, an old friend now turned foe played with just the right amount of snark by Louie Chen, is trying to keep his investors whole and rid the street of homelessness and freeloaders.
That can be plenty to unpack and previous productions had included flow charts to help connect the dots, but The Dio’s production never feels overwhelming. It has the right amount of flavor and enough spice (especially in Sarabia’s queen worthy rendition of Angel) that makes the “Rent” namesake proud. When the Act II opener “Season of Love” brings the audience back from the scrumptious chocolate dessert served during intermission, it’s enough to get you on the floor, singing and dancing along with them. There’s a reason the song has stayed etched in the pop-cultural zeitgeist all these years later, and when there’s an army of singers at this level (shout-out to soloists Sabrina Dahlgren and Antonio Vettraino), it’s impossible not to be moved.
Sarah Brown, Jared Bugbee, Alex Cousins, Chloe Grisa, Jordan Hayes-Devloo round out the rest of the cast who inhabit a variety of roles from Mark’s obsessive mother and drug dealers to police officers, HIV support group members, and restaurant waiters. DeBruyne knows what he’s working with and he gives each individual a shining moment (not a single performer takes their time on stage for granted either). You can feel that energy in the house despite an occasional microphone issue or the sometimes overpowering use of a non-toxic fog that sporadically took me out of the performance.
Alongside DeBruyne, choreographer Michelle Marzejon-Green moves the actors inside the intimate setting with ease; scenic, sound, and lightning designer Matt Tomich continues proving no show is too big for The Dio’s stage; Norma Polk outfits the cast with a fun, refined mid-nineties glow and Angel’s aesthetic during “Today 4 U” emulates oodles of rich charm. The crew is aided by various assistants, including director Lauren Byrne-Dunn, choreographer Grace Nulsen, costumer Nancy Koppin and property designer Eileen Obradovich.
In the end, The Dio’s production of “Rent” is a beautiful and encompassing experience that harbors everything you cherish about the show while doubling as a great introduction to newcomers. As always, your ticket includes a three-course dinner, and the signature fried chicken never disappoints, but it was the inclusion of “Oven Roasted Cauliflower with Pesto” that almost stole the show (this coming from someone who usually dislikes pesto!). If you have your tickets, count your blessings. If you don’t, I’d see about getting on a waitlist or bribing the staff.
La Vie Boheme!
THE DIO’S production of RENT continues through October 2nd. The only ticket availability that remains is for THIS upcoming weekend. Click here