MONDAY MATINEE: Wright State University’s “RENT”

I’m not a fan of opera-style musicals. I hated “Evita” and couldn’t wait for Eva to die so I could go home. I’m pretty sure I’m going to roll my eyes at much of “Les Miserables” when I see it in a few months. And the last time I saw it (with the exception of a few moments) I thought “RENT” was overrated, a little pretentious, and a whole lot boring.

And then Wright State University and the brilliance of their theater department changed my mind.

Perhaps it was the bad seat I had at the last production or perhaps it was the interpretation presented but I just didn’t “get it.” I did not emotionally connect with it the way you would think I would. But today, at the Sunday matinee, while watching the dangerously sexy Allison Kelly as “Mimi” play opposite Ben Street as the angst filled “Roger” I was moved to tears.

James Oblak is remarkable as “Mark,” anchoring the show and sounding as good as I’ve ever heard him. He and Street especially stand out during their duets – such great harmony. Beth Ann Wipprecht is believable (and has a great voice) as “Joanne,” and Lauren Bernstein does a fine job as “Maureen.” “Tom Collins,” portrayed by the vocally-gifted Derrick Jordan, was inspiring in his understated interpretation and Law Terrell Dunford is appropriately unlikeable as “Benjamin Coffin III.”

But my favorite performance comes from Justin Talkington as “Angel.” Its rare to see a performer completely transform into such an authentic, real character when the character is as flamboyant and loud as this cross-dressing AIDS patient fashionista. But Talkington – whom I follow on FaceBook, where he writes some of the most poetic and thought provoking status updates – can do this and does it with beauty and grace. There’s a sincerity about “Angel” that must be embodied by the actor who plays the part. Kudos to the whomever cast Justin Talkington; he’s perfect.

The ensemble was picture perfect, providing genuine support to the main players. Melissa Hall and Ria Villaver, specifically provided some of the much needed lighter moments in the show. Jason David Collins belted his heart out during “Seasons of Love,” and if Taylor Montgomery doesn’t have a major singing career in the near future then something is wrong with the world. I always enjoy Zach Cossman for his commitment to the dance and Zachary Jordan Steele has real depth as a performer. The rest of the ensemble, including Tommi Harsch, Kenneth Foster, and Mark Beyer all round out a truly exceptional cast.

The set design, lighting design, and sound were all above average. I thought the fact that the volume was turned up in accordance with the “rock” vibe was an asset to the show and despite a few hiccups with low range feedback, I could find no fault with the technical details of the production. The band, and especially Joey Monda on keys, was spot on. I was moved by the music, the acting, and most of all the gritty, realistic portrayal of family. Scott Hunt, the guest director of this show, has done a marvelous job bringing all the elements together in a seamless package. This is what “RENT” should be.

There’s still some time to see it but tickets are nearly sold out. Call the WSU Box Office at 937-775-2500 for info!

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