Review: “Rent” in Novato

Every thirty years or so, musical theatre manages to produce something to which the younger members of a generation latch onto. From Hair in the 1960’s through Hamilton today, composers and lyricists’ use of the music of their time has been an effective way to entice younger audiences into theaters.

The 1990’s brought Jonathan Larson’s Rent, which transplanted Puccini’s opera La bohème from Paristo New York’s East Village Alphabet City and transformed its painters and poets to filmmakers and rock stars. The show went on to win four Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its success was not witnessed by Larson, who passed away on the show’s Off-Broadway opening night. The Marin Musical Theatre Company and Novato Theater Company have a co-production running in Novato through April 10.

It’s the tale of an artistic community struggling to survive though the ‘80’s, the grunge movement, urban gentrification, the AIDS crisis, and the interpersonal conflicts that come with life. Roommates Roger (an intense Nelson Brown) and Mark (a genial Jake Gale) resolve not to pay any rent to their former friend and landlord Benny (Arup Chakrabarti), who plans to turn an adjoining lot into a “cyber arts studio” and evict the artists and squatters living there.

From top: Jake Gale, Gary Stanford, Jr., Shayla Lawler, Nelson Brown, Ensemble

Mark, a wannabe filmmaker, serves as the narrator of the story. Through him we meet Roger, who’s afraid of succumbing to AIDS before he writes one great song. Roger is pursued by Mimi (Trixie Aballa), who has addiction issues. Mark still pines after his ex Joanne (Anna Vorperian) who left him for Maureen (Shayla Lawler). There’s also Tom Collins (Gary Stanford, Jr.) and his crossdressing partner Angel (Stephen Kanaski). All of their stories are delivered through song via a pounding hard rock score, vigorously delivered by musical director Daniel Savio’s four-piece band

Director Jenny Boynton has a large, diverse cast at work and several really stood out. Lawler brings the right amount of New York attitude to Maureen. Angel is the heart and soul of the show, and Kanaski, in tandem with Stanford’s Collins, brought a true sense of love – and the heartbreak of loss – to their characters.

The vocals were sometimes iffy, as is often the case with scream singing, but the energy the cast brought to the stage was invigorating. The entire ensemble comes through with “Seasons of Love”.

The pandemic led to a dearth of large-scale musicals on local stages. Rent was overdue.

’Rent’ runs through April 10 at the Novato Theater Company, 5420 Nave Drive, Ste. C, Novato. Fri & Sat, 7:30pm; Sun, 2pm. $18–$30. 415.883.4498. Proof of vaccination is required to attend. Masking is optional. novatotheatercompany.org.

Photos by Katie Wickes

This review was originally published in an edited version in the Pacific Sun and North Bay Bohemian.

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