BU’s ‘Rent’ is poignant, compelling.

Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri

As of this writing (Nov. 17), you still have several opportunities to see the amazing fall musical by the Binghamton University Theatre Department. Jonathan Larson’s Rent, directed by Tom Kremer, is at once heartbreaking, funny and even more poignant, because it has been dedicated to Susan J. Peters, the department’s beloved professor and musical director, who died last month. (She retired in 2012 after 40 years at the university.)

Set in New York City, Rent is an update of Puccini’s opera La Boheme, and while things have changed at lightning speed since the late 1990s, it captures the sensibilities of that time and place with some precision.

Rent paints a vivid picture of a year in the lives of several bohemian city dwellers facing issues of drug addiction, poverty, alternative lifestyles and what was at the time the hopeless scourge of AIDS. The musical is not intended for audiences much younger than the college students who packed the auditorium on opening night.

The BU cast tackles this ambitious show with lots of heart and youthful energy, and the first night audience showed their appreciation at the end of the long second act with a standing ovation. That act opens with the memorable number “Seasons of Love,” probably better known as “525,600 Minutes,” which asks the question, “How do you measure a year?”

Matt Edlind is great as Mark, a documentary filmmaker who, as narrator, helps the audience make sense of the frenetic, chaotic action of the Lower East Side neighborhood where the show takes place and where the characters live, often hand to mouth.

Imani Pearl Williams is Mimi, a drug-addicted club dancer. She moves, choreographed by JoEllen Kuhlman and Shoshana May, with the fearlessness and grace of a cat on each of the three levels of the set, while simultaneously belting out her songs.  She is complemented by the strong voice and presence of Alex Gill-Pelchar as Roger, her sometime boyfriend.

Danielle Nigro is funny and confident as Maureen, a lesbian performance artist. Her solo reminded me of an avant-garde show I saw way off-Broadway in the ’70s, when none of the kids in the balcony with me — or on the stage, for that matter — had yet been born.  Rent satirizes that kind of theatricality very well, and Nigro nails it.

Maureen’s love interest, Joanne, believably played by Adriana Caminero, is a tough lawyer.  Maureen and Joanne’s petty jealousies and volatile relationship make for some memorable moments. You want them to be happy.

Lending a “yuppie” counterpart to the bohemians is their landlord, the slick Benny, played by Rob Tendy. He is very good, in a smarmy kind of way, but the hands-down show-stopper is Angel, played with swish and certitude by Matt Pederson. His/her costumes, courtesy of Calley Parks and her assistants, are adorable.

Angel and his lover, Tom Collins, played by Matt Gaska, have an onstage chemistry that gets better and better as the show develops, moving from superficial to sensitive. It is a deep and moving collaboration.

The rest of the cast sings, dances and even provides a  kind of chanting Greek chorus of “please pick up the phone” as the concerned, distant parents of the young bohemians. Members of the ensemble include Martin Borromeo, Mary Dziekowicz, Ryan Fazziola, Nikki Jacobsen, Amanda Jones, Ian Penzel and Erik Young.

The pit orchestra, conducted by Kristina Ruffo, is outstanding.

Karen Kozlowski’s set is spare and industrial, and lighting designer Joe Beck’s illumination is evocative of the time and place, and cleverly executed. Compelling portraits of the characters projected above the stage are well done.

If you go, be prepared for the length of the show. As a contemporary musical, possibly conceived to cover all the elements of the opera it is based on, it does go on, even after this viewer would have been good with what felt like a satisfying ending. However, further resolution, it turns out, is warranted. The cast keeps up the energy when the show itself starts to flag a bit.

IF YOU GO: Rent will be performed again at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Nov. 22 and 23) and at 2 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 24) in the Don Watters Theatre of  the Fine Arts Building on the BU campus. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 607-777-ARTS or by going online at http://www2.binghamton.edu/anderson-center/buy-tickets.html.

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