RENT by Starring Buffalo at Shea’s 710 Theatre

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.

Theatre Review: ‘Rent’ at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

The Company of the RENT 20th Anniversary Tour RENT 20th Anniversary Tour, Credit Carol Rosegg 2018.

When I was in high school, so about ten years ago, I saw “Rent” for the first time. At this point in my life, I was very young, and had not accumulated many life experiences. I didn’t understand much of the story “Rent” told, and I was lost for most of it. Time passes and I thought that as I grew older, I would learn more, appreciate more, and understand the story more, and I did. As the 20th Anniversary Tour opened at Shea’s on Tuesday evening, I was ready to find a new appreciation for the material. I can honestly say that I tried, but this show just does not work for me. I don’t understand the hype, but I will say, that this production is wonderful, and that the actors and musicians do a phenomenal job telling this very dense story that has become a cultural phenomenon.

. . .a great night out at the theatre for anyone who can appreciate storytelling found in the performing arts.

It is difficult to have a unpopular opinion when it comes to a show that is so well liked. I have countless friends who are in love with the story and the music. I just don’t see it. I feel bad for the characters, but I don’t make much of a connection with them. Is it because I have not experienced what they have? Probably. I am lucky to say that I have not had to watch a friend die from an incurable disease, or that I have not had to be evicted from the place I live. Is my privilege showing? You can say it. I have been privileged. I think my biggest issue with the story is that there are opportunities for the characters to get the help that they need, but they just don’t. Maybe the story of ‘Rent’ is just too real? Maybe I like my theatre to be full of fairy tales. Or maybe I’m just right and the show isn’t that good to begin with. Who knows? Who can say? We all have our own opinions. 

“Rent” is the 1996 Tony Award winning best musical by Jonathan Larson. It tells the story of a group of friends who are living on the outskirts of New York City during the AIDS epidemic. Mark (Logan Marks), an aspiring filmmaker, and Roger (Joshua Bess), a musician who has developed a phobia of leaving the apartment after discovering that he has been diagnosed with AIDS, live rent free in an industrial studio apartment. Their former roommate, Benny (Marcus John) married rich and bought the building, and after a few years of letting his friends live there, has decided to come and collect the rent, which they are unable to pay. Other denizens of the area help tell the tragic tale of acceptance, love, loss, and fear.

The performances really shine in this production. Logan Marks and Joshua Bess do well as roommates Mark and Roger, respectfully. They have a strange chemistry where they don’t seem very close, yet they would give anything to the other at the drop of the dime, if only either of them had one. Their performance of “Rent” is powerful and sets the tone for the show well!

Deri’Andra Tucker as Mimi is a fabulous choice. Tucker brings a sultry and sexy charisma to Mimi, and really gets the audience’s blood boiling with her performance of “Light My Candle.”

Javon King gets huge audience reaction as Angel in this production. King bares all on stage, and shows no fear in his performance. He is definitely a crowd favorite.

The ensemble is fantastic in this show. “La Ve Bohème” and “Seasons of Love” still get huge audience applause and are probably the most memorable tunes in the piece.

While this show just doesn’t do it for me, it still possesses merit, and is a great night out at the theatre for anyone who can appreciate storytelling found in the performing arts.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Advisory: Adult language.

“Rent” runs until March 31, 2019 and is presented at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. For more information, click here.