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Theater Review: "Rent" at Bristol Valley Theater 

Not sold on Rent

The quaint town of Naples is a quiet community well known for skiing in the winter and the Grape Festival in the fall -- but it's perhaps less known for its summer stock organization, Bristol Valley Theater, which boasts a six-show theatrical season running from June through August.

The third show in this season's lineup is the hit rock musical "Rent," which depicts a group of young New Yorkers affected by HIV/AIDS in the late 1980's. The story, with book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, is set in the bohemian Alphabet City in the East Village, and is reminiscent of Puccini's "La bohème." The musical -- though it can be quite risqué in nature -- was such a success on Broadway that it was adapted into a film version in 2005. (The film furthered "Wicked" star Idina Menzel's career and features Rochester native Taye Diggs.)

"Rent" is filled with earworm tunes, powerful moments and dream roles for aspiring thespians, which explains why it is still staged so frequently 10 years after becoming a movie. For theatregoers who can't make it to a larger city to see hit shows like "Rent," it's refreshing when small, regional theaters are gutsy enough to stage big shows. The problem lies, however, in the theaters being realistic about the abilities of potential cast members.

Many of the cast and crewmembers listed in Bristol Valley Theater's program work on more than one show, which is typical of summer stock seasons. It bonds the cast and crewmembers, but can also contribute to a less challenging performance atmosphere as people get comfortable with one another. It's possible that was the problem in this production of "Rent," though it seems more likely that the casting choices were not strategic.

"Rent" is a rock musical that deals with weighty social issues, and it demands powerhouse vocals and committed acting. Many of the cast members I saw on Saturday were not fitted to their roles, which made the show overwhelmingly clunky and distracting. Several of the leading players in this production struggled to hit notes, harmonize, and keep up with the four-piece rock band hidden behind the set. The band, led by J. Elliot Yates, executed the show's score admirably, but it quite often overpowered the weaker vocalists in the cast, even though everyone was wearing a mic. Numbers that should have been heart wrenching -- "I Should Tell You," "Goodbye Love" -- or sexy and entertaining -- "Today 4 U," "Out Tonight" -- fell flat because the actors couldn't move and sing with equal caliber.

Bristol Valley Theater is housed in the former Trinity Federated Church on Main Street in Naples and bills itself as "the only venue of its kind in a 50-mile radius." While the originality is appealing, it does present some difficulties such as a lack of air conditioning and outdated bathrooms (which also needed cleaning on Saturday -- taking out the trash so it doesn't overflow onto the floor doesn't seem like too much to ask).

But the set of "Rent," designed by Bryce Cutler, takes advantage of the former sanctuary, mimicking an industrial loft and alleyway draped with Christmas décor and lit with neon fluorescent lights. It's inventive and fun, giving director and choreographer Suzi Takahashi and her cast plenty of opportunities for interesting scene work on the different levels of the stage.

Unfortunately, it felt like many of the opportunities were ignored. The creative set negated a need for the "immersive" scenes played out on the auditorium steps, as they were difficult for many audience members to see and hear. To top it off, the immersive staging scattered sound quality and marred the show's iconic "Seasons of Love" number.

There were few redeeming parts, delivered largely by Liz Wasser (Maureen), who possesses the voice and the acting skills necessary for her role. When she entered midway through the show, her stage presence created a noticeable uptick in the energy of the cast. Lora Nicolas (Joanne) excelled in her duets with Wasser and David E. Shane (who played a likeable Mark). The ensemble had several shining moments as well -- especially during the voice mail scenes. And Cutler edited together film footage that was projected onto the set and tied the story's historical, documentary nature together nicely. With a few different casting decisions, Bristol Valley Theater could have sold this production of "Rent."

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