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Theatre Review: Powerful Songs Drive Imagine Productions’ Presentation of Rent

Lisa Much Lisa Much Theatre Review: Powerful Songs Drive Imagine Productions’ Presentation of RentRENT, presented by Imagine Productions, shows through May 18. Photo by Jerri Shafer.
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Twenty years after the initial New York Theatre Workshop, everyone knows Rent. Loosely based on Puccini’s opera La bohème, it tells the romanticized tale of several young artists struggling to survive in New York City in the late 80s/early 90s, while battling the machine, HIV, and their own fears. It enjoyed a twelve year run on Broadway and a 2005 movie that, let’s face it, anyone reading this review probably saw. Imagine Productions’ Rent proves simultaneously timeless yet period. It certainly feels like a different time, underscored by Sarah Frady’s apt costuming that tributes the film, but evokes feelings of nostalgia, hope, or love that most can relate to.

 RENT, presented by Imagine Productions, shows through May 18. Photo by Jerri Shafer. (RtoL: Brent Rayburn as Roger and Cassie Kahr as Mimi)

RENT, presented by Imagine Productions, shows through May 18. Photo by Jerri Shafer. (RtoL: Brent Rayburn as Roger and Cassie Kahr as Mimi)

Companies that choose to produce a show that the majority of their audience knows very well face a few challenges. Namely, they must deliver a great production. Imagine Productions nails some things. Overall, the songs, and yes, with Jonathan Larson the songs drive the show, sound amazing. This production features a powerful ensemble that can rival a Broadway cast. At times, it almost seems too much for the intimate space. Vocal Director Zac DelMonte hones a talented group of singers with much success. Sam Falcone leads a strong five person band for this rock musical. Unfortunately, on opening night, the show suffered from several mic and mixing issues (along with some light glitches). Hopefully, they can fix these as the run progresses.

Zhané Dawlingz (Angel) and Brian Gray (Collins) set a high bar. Dawlingz plays a delightful Angel that everyone falls in love with. The two possess real chemistry and “I’ll Cover You” truly warms the heart; we shed a tear during Gray’s heart-wrenching reprise of the same song. Their playful singing in “Santa Fe,” aided greatly by Brittany Steel’s fresh choreography, evokes a wealth of hope and life as the two imagine dropping everything and opening a restaurant in New Mexico.

RENT, presented by Imagine Productions, shows through May 18. Photo by Jerri Shafer. (RtoL: Cassis Kahr as Mimi and Brent Rayburn as Roger)

RENT, presented by Imagine Productions, shows through May 18. Photo by Jerri Shafer. (RtoL: Cassis Kahr as Mimi and Brent Rayburn as Roger)

Zoë Lathan shines as Maureen, particularly during the iconic protest. Her dazzling and spirited Maureen places nicely next to Alex Lanier’s stark Joanne. Brent Rayburn plays a moody, yet very nice Roger. He almost seems like a victim next to Cassie Kahr’s pushy Mimi. Kahr, more than anyone, belts her songs ala Mariah Carey, but very much goes through the motions on stage.

Director Jonathan Collura finds creative uses for the space, though not all moments are visible to all of the audience in the cabaret-style set up for this production. Because of this, certain moments pulse with energy and others drag out. Opening night started with a bit of a lull, but by the end of the titular song the energy escalated and the show began running. Chip Danvers gives a valiant effort in the huge role of Mark Cohen. He sings well, and certainly looks like Anthony Rapp, the originator of the role both on Broadway and in the 2005 movie. Ultimately, he appears a bit uncomfortable and unsure on stage subsequently providing a rather stilted performance.

Overall, Imagine Productions’ Rent offers a fun and different night at a club—not a theater—that will entertain. The music (provided sound improvements) and venue make the show a recommendation. Word of caution: the eighty minute first act and hour long second act can make for a long evening given the audience either stands or sits on a backless stool. Practice your posture before you go.

Rent runs until May 18 at Wall Street Nightclub, 144 N. Wall Street. Thurs-Sun. at 7:30 pm; no show Thurs., 5/8. Tickets $17. More information can be found online at ImagineColumbus.org.

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