Denise and I caught a performance of the season-opening show at The Gateway Playhouse in Bellport last night, Jonathan Larson's Rent.
The Gateway describes itself as "one of only three professional theaters on Long Island" and as the "oldest of the three". Every spring through summer season, they present a series of high-quality shows, generally musicals, in professional productions that are probably the closest any LI theater comes to Broadway-level productions.
The downsides of their standing in the LI theater community are that 1) they're (quite reasonably) the most expensive theater on the Island, although they're nowhere near as expensive as a Broadway show; 2) Their choices can be a kind of vanilla at times, because they really have a need to sell tickets, and much of their clientele tends to be a little aged (present author included). So every year, I usually find their choice of shows slightly disappointing, as I wait in vain for some riskier fare (Chess! Chess! Chess! Did I mention Chess?). And 3) Because of their standing as probably the top dog of LI theater, they can sometimes have a little bit of an attitude that makes me want to slap them, which I'm about to do, lovingly, for their ad campaign for Rent.
Rent is being advertised on their website (and other places) as "Featuring Michelle Veintimilla, Star of the Fox TV Series Gotham as Mimi," next to a photo of an attractive dark-haired actress. I saw this, and my first reaction was "Wait a minute. I watch Gotham. Who the hell is Michelle Veintimilla?" I compared notes with Denise, and when we looked it up, the reason we didn't recognize her is that she plays a super villain (sort of) called Firefly who accidentally burnt half of her face off.
Now I want to be careful here not to take this out on Miss Veintimilla. I get that the theater is trying to sell tickets. Furthermore, I also get that, as it turns out, she's one of Gateway's own -- the show's playbill makes it clear that as a teen, she spent a significant amount of time in Gateway's Acting School, and they're understandably proud of her. She's one of their success stories. But by my calculation, Firefly is at best the 7th most important female character on Gotham, and that's only because they killed off Penguin's mother in Season 2. And it's a male-dominated show! So "Star of" my butt!
OK, got that out of my system. So Rent. I have to admit, I probably would have skipped the show if Denise hadn't really wanted to see it. Not that it's a bad show -- far from it. But it's a little depressing. Rent is basically a rock musical reconfiguration of Puccini's La Boheme, which is actually my favorite opera. It's set in alphabet city in Manhattan in the late '80s at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and features a colorful group of characters, many of whom are HIV positive, who are waiting for the virus to kill them. I like a lot of the music, and I saw the film, but let's face it -- on the surface, at least, this isn't exactly a chuckle fest.
Nevertheless, I realized after seeing the Gateway performance that I really didn't know the show as well as I thought I did. It's significantly different than the film, and in spite of its subject matter, more life affirming. Larson does an amazing job of taking the story of La Boheme and pulling it in a logical way into a modern setting. His characters are in no way perfect, which makes them human and very sympathetic.
Furthermore, the young cast of this production does a masterful job of bringing this story to life. The casting is universally excellent -- there really isn't a weak link in the bunch. I was particularly impressed with Jeremy Greenbaum's portrayal of Mark Cohen, the young filmographer who documents a year in the lives (or deaths) of this family of friends. But Denise's favorite was Anthony Festa who plays Roger Davis, an HIV positive musician who is recovering from both heroin addiction and the suicide of his former girlfriend April. His performance is very understated in the early parts of the play, and at first I wasn't sure if he was up to the part. As the play goes on, however, it becomes obvious that this was a deliberate choice on his part, as he plays Roger as someone who has shut off all of his a feelings in self defense until Veintimilla's Mimi Marquez character forces him back to life.
As for Michelle Veintimilla, whose Firefly role I so loutishly trashed at the beginning of this review, she has a strong and attractive voice, and has a great chemistry with Mr. Festa. She is especially impressive during "Another Day", where her Mimi teases, flirts with, and coaxes the Roger character as he tries to push her away, ultimately gripping him with both hands and pulling him back into the living world. It was as good a moment of theater as I've seen in a long time.
A special shout out goes to one of the actresses who plays a series of minor characters throughout the production, Amma Osei, who is given a moment to really break through with her voice during Rent's best-known song "Seasons of Love" and essentially uses it to bring the house down. What an amazing set of pipes!
Now Rent isn't a perfect fit for me. I'm not really a counter-culture kind of guy. As the son and brother of two lifelong police officers (who lost his father last year), I don't much care for the brief portrayal of police officers as evil storm troopers. And the supposedly amusing story where the otherwise sympathetic Angel character commits dog-i-cide is never going to be OK with me. (And I have a lot more sympathy than Larson probably wanted me to have for Kyle Robert Carter's Benny character, who's abhorred by most of the other characters throughout the play for being sellout yuppie scum, but who continually pays the bills so that the other characters can sit around and think noble thoughts.) But these are minor beefs about an otherwise fine production of an excellent show.
And since I abused The Gateway for their slightly overzealous ad campaign for this show, let me say something nice (and true) about them. When our children came to us seven years ago, we took them to a Gateway production of West Side Story that first summer, and we've taken them to a number of other shows there over the ensuing years. Both kids came to that first show just short of kicking and screaming, with my daughter swearing that she and her brother were going to be the only heads in the house not covered in grey hair. My son never really became a musical fan, which is fine, but he did like the show more than he thought he would, and he's come back with us for a few shows since then.
My daughter, on the other hand, who at first couldn't get used to the idea of a show where everybody just stops what they're doing and sings, has grown into a true musical fan over the years, She didn't come with us to Rent because her tastes have developed enough that she knows what she likes (namely upbeat shows with happy endings). But she's come with us to The Gateway to a whole series of shows over the years, including Legally Blonde, Spamalot, Young Frankenstein, South Pacific and The Addams Family to name a few, and she's looking forward to bringing her boyfriend with us to see The Gateway's production of Little Shop Horrors towards the end of the summer. She's also subsequently seen both Phantom of the Opera and Wicked on Broadway, as well as various other musicals at other Long Island theaters. So The Gateway played a significant part in making her a lifelong fan of musical theater, for which I'll be eternally grateful to them. (Just calm down a little with those ad campaigns, OK guys. And Chess! Just consider it, that's all I'm saying.)