There was a time in Savannah when just about every local theater production got either a print review or preview — often both. But the Savannah Morning News pretty much quit writing reviews of plays a few years ago.
It’s too bad. Even when readers roundly disagree with reviewers’ opinions, there’s a depth of discourse produced that’s hard to match in the exclamation-point-filled world of Facebook.
I’m not going to write a straight-up review of Savannah’s production of Rent at Bay Street Theatre, but I strongly, strongly recommend the show. I’ll have a few comments about the many strengths and the few weaknesses in my rambling comments here.
Early on in Rent, Mark says to his roommate Roger: “Take your AZT.” And at that moment I was back in the 1980s, when the spread of HIV and AIDS was simply horrifying. AZT is still part of a drug regimen today, I think, but back then it sounded like a magic password — one that might work or might not. Or might even make things worse.
The appropriately youthful cast here in Savannah surely doesn’t remember much — if anything — of those days, but that seems right. Yes, Jonathan Larson’s Rent has some tragic moments, but at the end of the day it’s a buoyant, upbeat story. The lone death in the play — staged really movingly in this production — is of the character most marginalized by society.
Frankly, that death struck me as something of a cop-out by Larson — it would have been a much more complex drama if one of the characters from obviously privileged backgrounds had died. On the other hand, the most marginalized Americans were and are the ones most at risk of HIV and other health crises too.
I wasn’t quite satisfied with the play’s resolution of questions of gentrification either. It’s easy to romanticize the lives of those young artists revolting against the status quo and searching for real meaning in their lives, but the embrace of blight and of petty criminality is no way to create a sustainable culture or economy. So I found myself feeling some sympathy for the yuppiefied Benjamin Coffin (get it?), played in this production by the gorgeous-voiced Erik Hauk.
Beyond those social issues and themes inherent in any production of Rent, I was swept along by the core humanity of the characters as they try to reconcile their desires, their dreams, their commitments to themselves and to others. And I was swept along by the sheer talent on display.
I found several numbers especially moving, including “Seasons of Love” and “Without You”, a duet between Roger (Christopher Stanley) and Mimi (Cecilia Arango).
The voices are uniformly excellent in the Bay Street Theatre production, directed by JinHi Soucy Rand and with musical direction by Warren Heilman, who also plays keyboard in the 5-piece ensemble.
Tyrone McCoy’s Angel is in many respects the moral center of the play, his eyes and voice brimming with emotion.
As the narrator Mark, Sam Collura supplies an infectious, impulsive energy.
There were strong moments too from the rest of the major characters: Christopher Blair as Tom Collins, Brittny Hargrove as Joanne, and Jonette Page as Maureen.
But occasionally some of the singing — and therefore the lyrics — got overwhelmed by the instruments. The bigger voices (like Blair and Arango) rose pretty steadily to the top, but others needed a little more amplification or a little less music in the mix. Some of the lines of dialogue lacked clarity too — probably a pretty common issue when actors know that they’re miked.
But the pacing, the blocking, and the use of Club One’s show stage seemed pretty much perfect. Be aware that columns that can obscure spectators’ views, and the sound can be a little jangly in that space. Still, for a variety of reasons the Bay Street Theatre stage seemed especially fitting to me for the show. (Bay Street Theatre’s executive producer Travis Harold Coles is a producer of Rent and a member of the ensemble too.)
I didn’t do a final head count, but it looked like about 30 other theatregoers were there on Sunday evening along with my friend Cindy and me. Sunday nights are tricky, for sure, and the play runs a couple of more weekends. But I was still a little disappointed by the turnout.
This is an excellent production of a demanding play — one that deserves strong community support. My personal thanks to the entire cast and crew for putting this thing on and for pulling it off.
Click here to see the remaining show dates and times and to order tickets.