Director Scott Miller and assistant Mike Dowdy have assembled a uniformly talented, fearless cast, and the two excel in pulling out the small moments that illuminate character development. The presence of a guiding hand is clear throughout the production, yet the movements and character nuances feel almost organic, as if each actor pulled his or her role from the inside out. The result is a unified cast that creates a truly bohemian community on the stage. And this feeling is intensified in the group numbers, where layered harmonies blend seamlessly, rising and falling with the emotion of the story.
Centered on the tribulations and maturation of aspiring filmmaker Mark and rock star Roger, the story includes characters dealing with AIDS, love triangles, suicide, random violence, addiction and the constant threat of homelessness. It’s a lot of content for a two-hour musical, and the scope of the show has always led me to approach it with caution. Luckily, New Line Theatre’s production strips away the pretense of a more polished staging, letting the raw energy and talent of the cast weave the various complexities together in an engrossing, immersive show.
Jeremy Hyatt and Evan Fornachon are well cast, and perfectly complementary, as Mark and Roger. Hyatt lacks the vocal confidence and range of the other actors, and he works this to a character advantage, creating a separation natural to one more comfortable watching and documenting rather than participating. As the rocker, Roger, Fornachon brings a gritty, seductive quality to his voice and acting, yet he’s filled with doubt and hesitation. Closely guarding his vulnerability, Roger nearly misses his chance at love with Mimi, a provocative and daring turn by the exceptional Anna Skidis.
Luke Steingruby shines, almost literally, as Angel. This character represents the heroic best of a collective community, continually reminding others to freely share what they have and to take care of each other. Angel is ethereal, never judgmental, even as she fights to live and find love. Steingruby manages to bring an earthy humanity and humor to Angel that is perfectly set-off by an impressive vocal range and bright, clear tone. Marshall Jennings tugs at the heart as Angel's lover, while Sarah Porter, Cody LaShea and Shawn Bowers each add a unique touch to their roles creating a convincing, and at times manipulative, counterpoint.
The rest of the ensemble turn in strong performances, and placing the parent phone calls at the edge of the stage area, directly between the audience and actors, is an effective touch. Some audience members may be a little uncomfortable with the ensemble interaction, but I found breaking the fourth wall at these moments works well with the story’s theme – a natural extension of the art aesthetic.
The set, lighting and costumes support the show well, establishing location and time, while suggesting economic uncertainty and a constant struggle for survival. Scenic and lighting designer Rob Lippert uses the small space quite effectively and costumers Sarah Porter and Mary Wiegert nicely capture the bold colors and eclectic fashions of the 1990s. These supporting elements work in harmony to enhance the show’s theme with visual interest and layered textures. The result is a memorable production filled with stolen chances, borrowed happiness and powerful emotions pulled from a constant state of movement, noise and distraction.
As usual, director Miller provides insightful and informative notes in the program, helping the audience to understand the company’s production as well as the social and period themes that influence the story. Rent runs through March 29, 2014 at New Line Theatre in the Washington University south campus theater. For reservations or more information, visit www.newlinetheatre.com.