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'Rent' is worth the cost at Silhouette Stages

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An energetic young cast is having a great time doing the musical "Rent" at Silhouette Stages. That energy would reach the audience even if the performers weren't in the habit of coming off the stage and strolling down the aisles at Slayton House Theater.

If anything, the energy level sometimes threatens to go out of control. The five-member orchestra conducted at the keyboard by Stacey Antoine, for instance, is so relentlessly percussive and just plain loud that the already-high-pitched vocalists can barely rise above the band through much of the first act.

As production-related problems go, you could do a lot worse than have musicians and singers who are absolutely determined to tell you what it's like to be struggling creative types in a low-rent neighborhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side. That determination is the essence of the late composer Jonathan Larson's "Rent," which relates how its young characters confront death at an early age.

When Larson suddenly died of an aortic aneurysm at the tender age of 35, it was just a few weeks before "Rent" opened in New York City in 1996. The irony of his own early death was so profoundly sad that his powerful musical instantly attained a near-spiritual aura.

Besides its strong run on Broadway, "Rent" proved a popular draw on the touring circuit to cities including Baltimore and Washington. Seeing it again now in the Silhouette Stages production directed by Susan G. Kramer serves as a reminder of how potent it remains as a show that is both of its time and timeless.

The timeless quality is something you'll note in much of Larson's music and lyrics, as well as in his book's description of the characters' bohemian lifestyle. The plight of starving artists qualifies as an eternal trait.

Larson also was inspired by a specific earlier musical work, however, when he composed his own timeless musical. By happy coincidence, this musical source for "Rent" is currently available on another stage. Lyric Opera Baltimore performs Puccini's opera "La Boheme" Nov. 2 and 4 at the Lyric Opera House. Although Larson's characters don't talk about that Italian composer, they're contemporary bohemian artists and, for that matter, Larson's score directly alludes to Puccini's score in places.

As for "Rent" being of its own time, Larson provides a quasi-documentary depiction of life in a poor East Village neighborhood in the 1990s. Indeed, one of the main characters, Mark Cohen, is an aspiring filmmaker who doesn't go anywhere without his small hand-held camera. Mark's friends are artists, musicians and other grungy hipsters whose admittedly timeless financial and personal woes are compounded by the scourge of AIDS that claimed so many lives during that era.

There's also an unanticipated technological respect in which "Rent" qualifies as a 1990s period piece. Many of the characters obsessively keep in touch by telephone and, yes, some of those calls are made from that old-fashioned architectural construction known as a phone booth. Although there are jokes about email and other modern means of communication, texting had yet to appear on the media landscape.

It's difficult not to think about such cultural changes, but ultimately it's the eternal human drama that asserts itself on the minimal, metal scaffolding-oriented set. It's a quality that's neatly captured by the close friendships that will be challenged, such as that between filmmaker Mark Cohen (Randy Dunkle) and the aspiring musician Roger Davis (Jason Phillips).

Romantic relationships are tested even more dramatically, such as the gay love shared by Tom Collins (Jamar Brown) and the drag queen Angel Dumont Schunard (Malcolm Lewis); and the lesbian relationship between Joanne Jefferson (Zaria Stott) and Maureen Johnson (Nina Kauffman).

The other principal characters include the drug-addled and otherwise unstable Mimi Marquez (Caelyn Sommerville); and the bohemian-turned-landlord Benjamin Coffin III (John Gurtshaw).

Vocal highlights include Sommerville and Phillips contemplating Mimi and Roger's romantic history in "Light My Candle" and "Without You"; Dunkle and Stott engaging in smooth vocal and dance moves as Mark and Joanne indulge in some intensive analysis of a mutual friend in "Tango Maureen"; and Kauffman's "Over the Moon," which humorously underscores Maureen's self-important would-be career as a performance artist.

Mention also should be made of the ensemble members who play multiple supporting characters swirling around each other in the choreography by Brandon Sinclair. These perpetually peppy players are Stacey Bonds, Jim Gross, Ashley Avenoso, Keri Eastridge, Cortney Baca, Keith Becraft, Danielle Sherry, Nicholas Genna and Joseph Bohrer.

All of these voices mesh beautifully when the full company does such numbers as the closing number in act one, "La Vie Boheme/I Should Tell You," and the opening number in act two, "Seasons of Love."

By the time this production pushes into that second act, the musical balance between the band and the vocalists has mostly stabilized. Not only can you hear what these characters are saying through song, but you also feel their pain with even greater intensity.

The Silhouette Stages production of "Rent" runs through Nov. 4 at Slayton House Theater, 10400 Cross Fox Lane in Wilde Lake Village Center in Columbia. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15- $18. Call 410-637-5289 or go to http://www.silhouettestages.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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