SummerFest might be only a few years old, but it already has one established tradition: music.
For the past several seasons, SummerFest has ended its annual three-show run with a big ol' honkin' musical. This year is no exception.
Director and choreographer Tracy Bonner takes on Rent, Jonathan Larson's Tony- and Pulitzer-winning musical about a group of starving artists in late 1980s/early 1990s New York who come together to save the run-down building that they call home. Touching on complex themes including the role and value of art and artists in our society, the play also confronts the painful plight of those living with HIV/AIDS in the disease's earlier years. It's set in a time when the public's fear of the new disease nearly matched its ignorance, and a diagnosis was openly considered a death knell, making Larson's work bold and pioneering.
Bonner's graffiti-laden vision of the wildly popular musical does Larson's work justice, with considerable effort. At Wednesday's opening-night performance, its animated, energetic cast and high-octane choreography were occasionally hampered by waning stamina and more than a few technical blunders. To their credit, the troupe always rebounded and regained momentum. Sometimes, it felt as if the cast were fighting the limitations of The Arboretum, expending double energy to reach the folks on the blankets farthest away. Sitting so far away that I could not distinguish the performers facial expressions, I did appreciate how "big" the cast played their roles.
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Technically, Wednesday's performance had the hallmarks of a show still working out the kinks, not a luxury that the five-show run has to spare. Spotty sound quality and late or missed cues when a performer's microphone was either silenced or not working properly made hearing the show a significant effort. Far from an expert on audio gear, I still got the sense that SummerFest is going to have to beef up its sound system in the next few years if it wants to hold its musical tradition to increasingly higher standards.
Lighting designer Jeff Fightmaster's work strikingly complements set designer Dathan Powell's palette of tenement graffiti, but the spotlight operators flanking the right and left of the stage routinely missed their marks, leaving actors leaning to find their light, or missing it altogether.
These kinds of technical distractions made the actors work even harder.
Chip Becker (as Mark), Johnny Dawson (Roger) and Nick Vannoy (Tom Collins) delivered sturdy, grounding performances. And Carleigh Griffeth's delightfully over-the-top performance of Over the Moon was a bizarrely satisfying highlight. She is perfectly cast to play Maureen, a bisexual artist bent on saving her friends' building. She and her lover, Joanne (played with contagious verve by Sharonda Piersall), proved to be two of the show's biggest voices. Bonner deserves kudos for thoughtful, accurate casting that matches each performer with his strengths.
Occasionally, however, some actors' performances flagged under the weight of the show's demands. It's easy to see why. One thing that Rent requires is stamina.
Even the show's widely regarded favorite character, the inspiring and colorful drag queen Angel (Emanuel Williams), had a melodically flat moment or two when the going — or dancing — got tough. Still, it did little to diminish his electric, inspired performance. His drag-licious choreography coupled with Susan Wigglesworth's costuming make for some of the show's most visually and thematically enticing moments.
This production of Rent is admirably packed with enthusiasm and pure gut-wrenching drive, but on Wednesday, it was hindered by just enough technical and performance roadblocks to keep it from being the smash hit it ought to be.