Theatre Review: Rent at East Brunswick’s Playhouse 22

EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ—Johnathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning rocked up reworking of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, is being staged at the East Brunswick Community Arts Center by its resident theater company, The East Brunswick Community Players/Playhouse 22.

Instead of Paris’ Latin Quarter in the 1830s, we find ourselves in Manhattan’s Alphabet City during the AIDS crisis on Christmas Eve in the late 1980’s.

Mark, a budding filmmaker well-played by Michael Drake and his songwriting HIV-positive roommate Roger, played equally well by Steven Leschchanka, are freezing in their dark loft as an eviction looms.

Enter a collection of down at heel, lonely creative dreamers who bond to each other in poverty, hopelessness and distant optimism.

In other featured roles are: Mariella Klinger as Mimi, Darious Delk as Collins, Jose Arroyo as Angel, Melissa Javorek as Maureen, Samantha Chase Kestenbaum as Joanne and Jon Yearwood as Benny. All were top notch and had the right chemistry with each other to make these characters believable.

The rest of this large ensemble cast was of the highest caliber I’d seen assembled for a non-equity musical. It couldn’t have been an easy task for director Greg Scalera to corral that amount of talent and get such solid performances out of all them.

But Larson’s RENT by itself seems detached, muddled and hard to follow and as it progressed—it lost momentum.

This was not a directorial issue, but the fault of the play’s book. Scalera did a fine job with the material and made sure all the characters were well defined.

Another problem: Much of Mister Larson’s lyrics is juvenile and at times irritating.  For example: “Who do you think you are—barging in on me and my guitar?”

Exemplary cast and good directing aside, this production had it flaws. At times, some of actors could not be heard over the music. An additional flaw, Mimi’s entrance from the rear of the theater, demanded audience members in the first few rows make an uncomfortable and obstructed180 degree head turn.

This production is recommended solely on the performances of this fine cast.  "RENT" without them is just OK.