Dirty angels kicking ass7/29/2015
For “Rent” the staging is in-the-round. Inside the entrance, designer Tim Wisgherof set up a riser for the guitar, keyboard, drums and bass. The musicians riff and tootle, pumping up the energy even as you find your seat. So, too, at show’s end, while the heroine Mimi languishes near death, music director Jonathan Brugioni (also on the riser) coaxes repeated cymbal washes, like waves of mourning.
“Rent” kicks ass in all the best ways at the Des Moines Social Club. The knockout performances are two high-schoolers — Glori Dei Filippone as Mimi and Demarius Fisher as Angel. To be fair, their roles are eye-poppers. Mimi is the fragile sexy beast, and Angel is the drag queen diplomat. Less showy turns, like Matt Beary as Angel’s paramour, also prove powerful, and the grace notes on this great night come from the bottom of the cast list, Jennifer Martin. Martin closes “Seasons of Love” with a soaring obbligato that revs Act Two into high gear.
The music needs that power for “Rent” to succeed. It needs to “put rock onstage — real rock.”
Composer Jonathan Larson himself set this goal, in the one other musical (“tick, tick…BOOM!”) he developed in full before he fell victim to a misdiagnosed heart condition at the age of 35. Larson never saw “Rent” reach Broadway, let alone play all over the world, launching careers for the likes of Taye Diggs. His tragedy shares, eerily, in the ones that loom over the show that got his greatest effort.
The gang salutes “La Vie Boheme,” in its most energetic ensemble piece, and Larson’s primary source was the masterful opera “La Boheme.” But the bohemian life in “Rent,” in Manhattan’s Alphabet City about 1990, proves desperate. Mimi is far from the only character with AIDS, and others go hungry and homeless, at risk of violence. Yet, on that razor’s edge, youth feels most alive, least compromised. In short, it’s rock ’n’ roll.
Director David Van Cleave underscores this combustibility via tension between the center and the edge. Troubled lovers pitch and yaw across the middle, up the exit aisles and back down. “Vie Boheme,” a celebration of community, crowds the center (and in there, cleverly, the actor who plays a drug dealer becomes, instead, a predatory real-estate mogul). For “Seasons of Love,” however, the cast wheels around behind and above the audience. Up on catwalks or on scaffolding converted to fire escapes (Wisgerhof capitalizes on the the venue’s industrial look) they could be angels.
Dirty angels, certainly. Another showstopper is a lesbian catfight (or is it a seduction?) with Elise Raemakers channeling her inner Aretha. Filippone may go her one better, in “Take Me Out,” when she turns her fire escape to the hottest show in town. The best grace notes drip with grit.
Overheard in the Lobby: The Playbill for “Rent” includes a sheet of disturbing statistics on homelessness, drug abuse and HIV among youths ages 12-21. CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.