Big events don’t happen all that frequently on the local theater scene, but one is most definitely in progress in Berea, Ohio. That’s where Baldwin-Wallace is mounting, in repertory, the Tony-award winning rock opera Rent and the classical opera that inspired it, La Boheme. This is the first time this has ever happened, anywhere, since Rent opened off-Broadway in 1996.
Under the direction of Victoria Bussert, director of music theater at B-W, these two productions not only soar individually, they create a wonderful symbiosis when you see them on succeeding days.
Or even on the same day, as I did. Let’s put it this way: there aren’t a lot more engrossing and thrilling ways to spend a Saturday or Sunday—at least with your clothes on.
This work by Giacomo Puccini is one of the most performed operas in the world, and small wonder. In a fairly short span it encompasses the hopefulness and unfettered joy of youth along with unspeakable tragedy.
Marcello the painter and Rodolfo the poet are shivering in their loft, pursuing their respective arts and, more importantly, trying to stay warm. After Marcello leaves with a couple of their buddies, Schaunard and Colline, Rodolfo meets up with sickly neighbor Mimi (she has TB, and a conveniently non-functioning candle), sparking the love story and the ultimate tragic ending.
Puccini’s glorious music is delivered beautifully by a 38-piece orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos (who also conducted a Broadway version of La Boheme).
In the two leading male roles, B-W conservatory of music graduates James Dickason and Jared Leal give Rodolfo and Marcello powerful yet nicely-nuanced vocal presences. And they have plenty of fun in the lighter scenes, dancing and pratfalling with their buddies. This provides a telling contrast when events turn dark.
Four of the key roles—Mimi, Schaunard, Colline as well as the flirty and risqué Musetta—are double cast with student performers taking turns. In this day’s staging, Jessica Waddle created a fragile and evocative Mimi while Lindsay Espinosa brought out the feisty spirit (and eventual heart of gold) of Musetta.
There are many similarities between this show and La Boheme as it swings an emotional arc from a celebration of youthful exuberance to the ravages of a disease (in this case, it’s AIDS, not TB).
Set in the lower east side slums of New York City in the late 1980s, instead of Paris in the 1800s, the music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson kick the La Boheme story into a contemporary context with the pair of male artists, Mark and Roger, now being a guitarist-songwriter and a video documentarian.
The love stories are a bit more complex here, as Mark’s ex-girlfriend, the performance artist Maureen, is now in a relationship with her on-the-fly producer Joanne. Meanwhile, just like in La Boheme, Roger meets up with a candle-challenged Mimi. In a third romantic subplot, Roger and Mark’s pal Tom Collins meets up with the fierce, crossdressing Angel.
This show is also double cast in key roles which included, at this matinee showing, Chris McCarrell and Jon White as Mark and Roger. As Mimi, Jillian Kates Bumpas sizzled as the pole dancer and junkie who falls for HIV-positive Roger. Kyra Kennedy and Andrea Leach also ignited love-hate sparks as Joanne and Maureen.
In two of the permanent roles, Antwuan Holley is a magnetic (if sometimes less than melodic) Angel, while Jason Samuel as Tom Collins nails his tender and hopeful song “Santa Fe.”
Since the two plays are directed by one person, Ms. Bussert, there are similar strengths that make these productions stand out.
One is specificity. In addition to the rotating leads, each play has a large supporting cast, and each person on stage is remarkably adept at finding clear, exact ways to be involved in each scene. For instance, in a crowd scene in Rent, a young woman junkie far off to the side of the stage is inspecting the festering red wound on her arm, the site of her injections. Even though she is a small cog, she clearly has a back story that is quickly implied.
This kind of telling detail happens across the stage in both plays, giving the entire production a credibility and resonance that doesn’t happen when crowds on stage just gather together and mimic each other.
Another clear strength is commitment. Not a commitment to a character, which is fairly easy to achieve, but a commitment to each moment. By not looking ahead and allowing each ensuing event to happen fresh, the cast members enable these plays to grab the audience by the lapels and bring them into that time and place.
Other invaluable assets at work in Berea are a magnificent metal superstructure set and subtly flexible lighting by Jeff Herrmann, entrancing period costumes by Charlotte M. Yetman, and muscular and inventive choreography (especially in Rent) by Gregory Daniels. All the above are professors at B-W, which makes one want to be a college freshman in theater arts all over again.
La Boheme and Rent
Through February 27 at Baldwin-Wallace College, Kleist Center, 95 E. Bagley Road, Berea, 440-826-2240