It takes a lot to fill Shea’s 710 Main theater, and certainly the anticipation of Broadway and Buffalo talent performing one of the most recognizable musicals in the recent canon was all it took. Anticipation filled the air as Artistic Director Drew Fornarola took the stage to introduce Starring Buffalo’s third production in Buffalo, after far too long away.
RENT, which is somehow 25 years old (!!!) essentially revolutionized the way commercial Broadway functioned. People camped out on the street to get rush tickets, while the NYC elite were paying hundreds of dollars for the same show. It was Hamilton before Hamilton. Starring Buffalo has astounded me in their past two performances, and I was certainly excited to see their take on this revolutionary work. Fornarola and his team have assembled a seemingly perfect cast, including Broadway performers Jay Armstrong Johnson as Roger, Jerusha Cavazos as Mimi, and Troy Iwata as Mark.
As Roger, Johnson is equipped with an unbelievable vocal instrument that is well suited for the role. I’ve long admired him as a performer, but felt that his performance was slightly low-energy off the bat. Iwata is the strongest of the Broadway performers, finding honest humor in each moment. I was grateful to see Iwata have a fresh take on the character. As Mimi, Cavazos’ physicality works, but she doesn’t quite have the powerhouse voice that has come to be associated with Mimi.
Buffalo standouts Dudney Joseph Jr. and Joe Russi are able to fully realize their potential as Collins and Angel, respectively. Joseph Jr.’s rich vocal instrument is as effective in both versions of “I’ll Cover You,” Act One’s uptempo love duet with Russi, and Act Two’s heartbreaking tribute at Angel’s funeral (Spoilers, I guess). I was thrilled this production made the decision to dress Russi in the signature Angel costume, and was captivated by his performance of “Today 4 U.” Giving strong performances are Alex McArthur as Joanne and Leah Berst as Maureen, while Jonathan Young manages to instill “yuppy scum” Benny with some redeemable qualities. Special commendation is to be given to Sean Ryan, who is playing an ensemble role in this piece and also served as Assistant Director. Ryan’s opening to “Will I?” is as good as it gets.
Ultimately, the thing that nearly derailed the opening night production was a band that was not nearly performance ready. It should be noted, of course, that the entire cast only had about 48 hours of rehearsal together, so there were bound to be some onstage jitters or fumbles. That being said (and setting aside a moment in “Tango Maureen” that seemed to be more of a technical issue and less of a musical one, but nevertheless forced the actors to adlib) the lack of accurate musicianship from the band severely hindered performances from succeeding. Cues were bound to be messy, but there were several occasions where the band, especially the normally sharp guitarist Larry Albert, were just playing entirely incorrect phrases.
As I said before, Starring Buffalo is an incredible organization whose mission brings Broadway performers, Buffalo professionals, and (usually) high school choruses together. Their previous productions have been excellent, and I felt that this RENT just didn’t quite meet their high standards.
For more information on Starring Buffalo!, click here.