Ryan Findley

RENT at Greendale Community Theatre

By - Jul 27th, 2009 06:35 pm

No Day But Today: local staging of RENT rises to its challenge

promo stills provide by GCT Theatre

promo stills provided by GCT Theatre

Book and Music: Jonathan Larson
Directed by: Brian Bzdwaka
Runtime: (unknown)

The Greendale Community Theare players took a risk in producing this Tony-Award winning show, and in the summer as well. Ask anyone involved in the show; they will tell you that they knew it was a risk. RENT, after all, portrays young, indigent, depressed, and some gay and lesbian artists struggling in early 1990s New York City. Several of them are living with HIV. They do drugs. They have explosive tempers and passionate reunions. They have, discuss and joke about sex. This show was considered racy when it was produced by the New York Theater Workshop in the late 1990s; for a small suburban theater troupe, it is downright controversial.

And yet Greendale Community Theatre forged onward. In the end, they have produced a production that is imbued with the grit and despair that these characters were imagined with, and with the frenetic activity of creation for it’s own sake. As director Brian Bzdawka and musical director Tom Reifenberg noted, “RENT is important because it tells the sory of a culture of artists that really exist . . . who give their hearts and souls to their art. They aren’t paid. They are undervalued. They are not respected . . . As artists ourselves, we share the passion with the artists in this show.”

That passion is evident in every scene, every note, and every line of this production.

filmicRENT requires not just strong voices, but a strong stage presence, and it is delivered here. The entire cast — from the principals through the ensemble — grab you by the shoulders and shake. James Jones (Roger) and Stephanie Staszak (Mimi) are the obvious show-stealers, both for the strength of voice and for sheer attractiveness.

But the entire cast delivers: Mark is too involved with his friends to be the observer he pretends to be, and in Robert Postotnik’s hands the character takes on a blend of subservience and forcefulness that is both touching and irritating. Marika McGhee as Joanne is more ‘take charge’ than pragmatic; she’s a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners type of woman. Matt Zeman as Benjamin Coffin III is slick like a snake-oil salesman and just as greasy. Laura McDonald as Maureen is note-perfect in the role of demanding diva, by turns dazzling and petulant. Collins, played by Robby Schuettpelz, is the anchoring rock of this chaotic urban family in much the way his strong bass anchors almost every song. Brad Novak as Angel Dummott-Schunard is hilariously ostentious and achingly innocent.

But perhaps the biggest surprise in a community production like this is the strength of the ensemble roles. Gabbie Levine delivers a heart-stopping solo during “Seasons of Love” that is even more astounding when you realize that such a large voice is coming out of such a tiny woman. Brittany Radocha gives Alexi Darling more character than one would have though possible in just two short sequences. The entire group delivers each line and each song with a passion and an energy that will knock you back.

guitarThe set for this production, designed by Bzdawka and Patrick Doran, holds true to the original notion of a versatile yet stationary set. Scene changes are accomplished by moving of a piece of furniture or highlighting a different level of the stage. This is complimented by several television screens that at various times play images and sequences supporting the work on stage. Video was shot and edited by Pototnik, who also choreographed the show.

There has been a great deal of turmoil and change in the Milwaukee theater scene this past season and continues today. It is likely that with funding still short in the months ahead, there will be more dischord. However, if GCT’s show is indicative of the quality and the daring of community theater in this metropolitan area, we may have little to fear from upheaval. While things might change, we can be assured of a thriving and vibrant theater and art scene for some time to come.

Greendale Community Theatre’s production of RENT continues this weekend, July 31 and August 1 in the Greendale High School Auditorium. Reserved ticketing is highly recommended.  More information can be found online at http://www.gctheatre.com/ or calling 414.423-0110 x4193. Ticketing information and more can always be found at Footlights Milwaukee.

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