March 13, 2011

To better understand the format of this Review, please first read my page entitled Kate-the-Critic’s Philosophy.

NBF: 0. !!! No hands in mouth AT. ALL. Kudos to an engaging cast. And as we all know, the songs ain’t bad either.

*:  David auditioned for Shadowbox at a general audition a couple weeks ago and was invited to attend a show. This theater has one of the pricier tickets in town ($20-$30), but we got to go for free. I thought this was worth sharing since the comparison of what I pay to the quality of the work often clouds my judgment. 


David and I just saw RENT by Columbus’ Easton based theater troupe, Shadowbox Live. Yep.. that big, gay, rock n’ roll, bohemian love-fest, homeless, disease ridden, tear-jerking RENT… the hit 1996 Pulitzer Prize winning musical by Jonathan Larson.  This seemed like an odd fit since I only know the place as a cabaret style theater and restaurant that puts on wacky sketch comedy shows. However, Shadowbox has been doing full-length rock musicals in their gritty space since 2006. RENT fits this company of actors and their space beautifully. Quick bit of info for the tiny fraction of you who know nothing about this musical (how is that possible, I ask? Maybe you were in a coma for most of the 90s): The story is loosely based on the Puccini opera LA BOHÈME, but instead of fighting TB, all the borderline-homeless bohemians in this play are fighting AIDS and don’t have money to pay for their rent as well as their meds in the now gentrified Alphabet City, NYC. I think that’s all you need to know. 


I haven’t been to Shadowbox Live, operating in Columbus since 1988, since I was in high school. My mother forced the family to go to their big money making, Christmastime sketch comedy show. I don’t recall much of that affair, but the thing that stood out most about the experience this time around was the fact that the actors were also the servers. Yes. We are talking about RENT, here… a musical chock full of belting, dancing, and gyrating. But even so… there goes Roger with a tray of cocktails… and there’s Mimi with a steaming pile of nachos! And if it isn’t the actor playing Tom Collins bringing me my very reasonably priced Sam Adams (I figured beer was appropriate. Actually “BEER AND WINE!” would have been more appropriate…. or a Tom Collins). After witnessing this actor/server practice in action, I am left wondering if these people could not be crazier (I know my husband was floored by the idea of performing a full-length musical and not having any prep time or any sort of break at the intermission), OR if they are BRILLIANT. People who DON’T go to the theater only like one thing about going to the theater: seeing an actor perform and then getting to see them in real life. Don’t believe me? Go to the talkback of a topical drama and wait for that one lady to say, “Your voice sounds so different!” and then ask, “How on earth did you memorize all those LINES!” By having the actors serve tables, work the box office, sell t-shirts, etc., they are fully responsible for the entire theater experience AND they give these seldom theater-goers their fix. This particular play also allowed the company to stay true to their festive cabaret atmosphere – while they didn’t serve food or drink during the acts and asked for audience members to kindly not talk to them during the play (yeah, I know, do the audiences at Shadowbox normally TALK to the actors DURING the show? I need to see that…), they did encourage singing along. The bona fide Rentheads sitting at the table next to us took FULL advantage of this.


As for the show itself, it was pretty damn solid. Bravo.  My poor husband has only seen the dreaded 2005 film featuring Adam Pascal’s 45-year-old highlights, so I was glad he had the opportunity to see a capable cast perform the piece on a bare set with a live rock band as it was done on Broadway. Director and Shadowbox Executive Producer Stev Guyer makes the claim that they are “not doing a rip off of any previous production of RENT” despite pressure from the “rabid fan base.” And yet, I couldn’t help but notice that some elements were exact replicas of the original Broadway production. For example, Mark (John Boyd), while an energetic performer and proficient singer, was a replica of Anthony Rapp right down to the scarf and thick-rimmed glasses. My adorable server (Jerrod Roberts) was also a dead-ringer for original cast member and future Law & Order star Jesse L. Martin. Maureen (spectacularly sung by Valerie Witherspoon) was Idina-ing the hell out of the familiar cow-jumping-over-the-moon choreography. The rest of the production had some creative casting, such as a sexy, brooding African American Roger (Brandon Anderson) and a perky, very Caucasian Mimi (Nikki Fagin. As I watched I thought, “Oh, maybe Mimi doesn’t have to be Latina!”… And right then she powerfully belted out the line, “When the Spanish babies cry!!!” from her big solo, Out Tonight. I guess she is supposed to be Latina, but it wasn’t distracting).  There was also a MASSIVE ensemble of dancing, but more often meandering, homeless people. 17 people in the chorus total. David’s immediate response was that he now noticed the theme of residents being bumped out of their homes and onto the streets due to the fact they’re unable to pay for their rent and their AIDS medication in a newly gentrified Lower East Side.  An astute observation seeing as the director claims “bumping up the presence of the homeless” was fully intentional. Then I said to David, well yeah, you didn’t notice the poor people before because everyone was wearing designer clothes in that stupid movie.


The set was a blank slate highlighting only their bitchin’ rock band, a strategically placed dancing pole for Mimi and a projection screen for Mark’s filmic exploits. The rest of the room was also used by the actors for intensely emotional moments such as the classic “525,600 Minutes” at the top of the second act. I was particularly impressed by the dramaturgical information – a history of the AIDS epidemic and the gentrification of Alphabet City – provided on the projection screen prior to the performance. With this contextualization, the production placed the focus on the theme of AIDS and its impact on real people rather than on the bohemian lifestyle (“Bohemian lifestyle” can easily be interpreted in 2011 as someone who doesn’t pay rent, bills, or their tab at the local diner because they are tortured artists. Today I guess these people are more commonly known as Hipsters). The Dispatch’s performing arts critic Michael Grossberg says the “intimate staging and careful orchestrations [make] almost every word intelligible” (link to complete review below). This is a technical point on which I would disagree. It is easy for any rock musical to fall into the trap of unintelligibility due to overwhelming electric guitars and drum sets, this one being no exception. The actors who are clearly talented musical theater performers made their lyrics known, where as others often screamed unintelligibly. This is a big reason as to why the original cast recording became so wildly popular in the 90s – Larson’s poetic and insightful lyrics were recognizable. Just ask those people who were at the table next me.  I wonder how many copies of that thing they’ve gone through…


Anyway, if you don’t usually go to the Shadowbox because you don’t like comedians hassling you while you eat mediocre bar food, you don’t have to worry about that with this one. Go see it. If you’re one of those people who like theater but have decided they now hate this play because it’s “overrated” or you’re “sick of the music” or “the movie sucked,” I’m not going to argue with you. I’m rather sick of it, too. And yes, that movie really sucks. But if you have never seen this piece staged, this is an excellent opportunity to see a brilliantly written play live on stage as it was intended.  If you don’t make it this time, we know RENT will be back sooner or later.


Shadowbox Live

164 Easton Town Center


Sundays at 2 and 7pm until April 17

Adults: $30   Students/Seniors/Active Military: $20



Columbus Dispatch – Michael Grossberg – Monday, March 7 2011

Published in: on March 15, 2011 at 3:04 PM  Leave a Comment  

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