With the semester coming to a close and the recent loss of our football coach, spirits are low around the University of Mississippi campus. Since one of the best ways to get over a problem is to remember that other people have bigger problems, the solution is in the dark theater just before the Grove.
Ole Miss Theatre takes on one of the most well-known and well-received musicals to date. Not only that, but they’ve moved into the Gertrude C. Castellow Ford Center for the Performing Arts for homecoming weekend to put on a major production. A show about living with (not dying from) AIDS in New York City, “RENT” is a gritty rock opera with a lot of sex, a lot of foul language and a whole lot of singing.
The original made the entire cast famous, creating stars such as Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs and Jesse L. Martin. Done over and over, almost to the point of being overdone, the production holds a strong story and meaning if the surrounding elements can flow together well.
In this production, a lot of the pieces are strong but the lack of vocal ability from some cast members brings the show down a notch. With strong technical aspects and a good core cast, it still retains a few who fall short and muddle up the occasional harmony (or solo).
Some cast members probably should never have been cast to begin with, but some were spot-on decisions, especially two women who are often overlooked in the department.
Kelly Barker from Hattiesburg steals the show from the moment she makes her overly dramatic entrance, as Maureen Johnson often does. Between her hilarious timing, sexy attitude and beautiful voice, Barker forces the attention on her and deserves every second. From start to finish, she owns the stage and her character with precision.
Pair Barker with senior Kellee Fuller, and you have a match from heaven. The two feed off each other to create a power couple that commands the stage. The duo’s big moment is easily the best number in the show as far as the vocals and acting are concerned, but it’s difficult to see due to the carelessness with blocking it as far upstage as possible.
Nick Bredosky becomes the villain as Benjamin Coffin III, better known as Benny. Despite being one of the smaller roles of the main group, he embraces the role and uses his velvety voice to woo the cast and the audience. The only complaint about Bredosky is his appearances being few and far between. Without a doubt, he fits the role of Benny with ease but should have been cast in a more visible role, maybe with a rock solo or two.
Sophomore Jade Genga looks damn good in pleather pants and a weird sports bra top, and her sexy appeal definitely works for her portrayal of Mimi Johnson, “dancer” and drug addict, roaming apartment buildings looking for men with matches. Her voice is on pitch and her presence is felt, but her energy is lower than it should be. While one of the less noticeable problems in the production, it does cause problems when it comes to her pairing.
Alex Hargett tries to rock it out as the hardcore Roger Davis, an overly angsty musician stuck in a rut because of a vicious ex-girlfriend and his battle with AIDS. The powerful rocker didn’t seem to come out in Hargett, in acting or vocals, falling flat often and having far too chipper a voice to be a depressed ex-junkie.
Nathan Ford takes on one of the more prominent roles in Mark Cohen, the struggling Jewish documentary filmmaker made famous by Anthony Rapp. Ford’s energy reads like that of a puppy, far too intense for a man with no money, no job and no foreseeable future. The opposite occurs, however, when the songs roll around. Ford goes from energetic to monotone in a snap, sliding up to the higher notes and cutting the originality from the riffs by cutting them altogether.
In the background, a dozen ensemble members play the roles of parents, agents and homeless throughout the production. Their presence brings a new dimension to the stage, lingering in the background as an addict would in the dark alleys of New York City or as an annoying mother would leave you incessant voicemails about holiday plans.
Nothing completes a rock opera like a live band. The true sounds of the electric guitar and deep beats of the bass give the show life and depth, and the slight visibility of the band through the filmy plastic is a beautiful light amid the dark scenes.
Once again, Dex Edwards takes on the challenge of filling a space much larger than Meek Auditorium and Fulton Chapel and surpasses expectations with ease. The grungy walls and exposed steel break you away from the pristine interior of the Ford Center and into the late 1900s, to a dirty world of drugs and disease. The multiple levels and incorporation of the live band into the set still give off the theatrical feel but are realistic enough to transport the audience to a realistic place outside those walls.
A show worth seeing, “RENT” lives up to (and even exceeds) expectations in most places, but the black holes can’t be ignored. A lack of intention with the direction and emotion from the characters hurts the heart of the show, but the surrounding pieces work hard to hide the cracks, often succeeding and creating a well rounded show overall.
“RENT” runs Thursday, Nov. 10 and Friday, Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 13 at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the UM Box Office in the Student Union or online at http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/tickets.
@ The Daily Mississippian — Oxford, Miss.