THE SUMMER OF JONATHAN LARSON BEGINS AT OHLONE COLLEGE SUMMERFEST ‘NO DAY BUT TODAY’
‘HOW DO YOU MEASURE A YEAR IN THE LIFE’ THIS ICONIC JONATHAN LARSON MUSICAL CELEBRATES ITS 28TH YEAR ON STAGE
Review by Vince Mediaa
Under the July full moon, it is a summer of “No day but today” a celebration of playwright Jonathan Larson. RENT The Musical is celebrating 28 years of “Seasons of Love”. The Tony honored musical is on two Bay Area stages this month and I first visited the Fremont company. Ohlone College Summerfest series production of RENT is now on stage through July 17th. The Smith Center of Performing Arts Amphitheater is the perfect home for this Pulitzer Prize Award winner.
Since I am reviewing a few RENT productions this summer - I am not going to share much about the story and characters. Most of my readers are fans of this 90’s classic and it is best I share my thoughts about the direction and craft team.
THE SONDHEIM - JON LARSON CONNECTION
After the loss of the theatre communities treasured Stephen Soudheim, his connection to RENTS playwright is important. Sondheim was also a mentor, a teacher and an audience regular for new works. He was famous for writing typewritten notes to future playwrights and artists. Producer Lin-Manuel Miranda directed the new film version of Larson's first musical “Tick, Tick … Boom!.” He asked Sondheim’s to recreate a voicemail where he offered needed praise to the future talent. Larson ignores the ringing phone and lets the answering machine pick up. Sitting on the bare wooden floor of his apartment in 1990 New York City, he listens as Stephen Sondheim leaves a message; “Jon? Steve Sondheim here,” the voice says Sondheim scripted that voice mail for the film himself offering just the right words to lift the spirits of Larson and countless other young artists. When Sondheim died Nov. 26, 2021, the American stage lost not only a composer and lyricist but also its longtime muse and inspiration.
The Ohlone college production is directed by Dawn L.Troupe, a former student of OC who is now based in NY. She is a professional actor, writer and director with a 20 year history in Bay Area Theatre. Troupe says “No Day But Today” is not only a chant sung by young artist with an illness, it is also a reminder of the importance of recognizing each moment of life as significant. We are still dealing or not dealing with the issue of homelessness, people who have chosen families are their lifeline and artists in the middle of it all attempting to create, love and live.”
Music director Catherine Snider and Vocal director Victor De La Cruz had their challenge working with some untrained voices but their work with Mari Dumas who stole the show as the powerful Mimi; her performance of “Out Tonight” was a show stopper.
Snider conducted an eight member pit band - highlighted by Tim Roberts and K.J. Brown’s electric and acoustic guitar solos. Set Designer Fred Alim and lighting designer Matt O’Donnell teamed together to bring an impressive set to the Smith Center outdoor stage. Alim created runways, steps and ladders for the eighteen member cast to explore and climb.
A snow machine was perfect for many of the first act Holiday theme numbers. The set was a 19th member of the cast and O'Donnell's lighting was the 20th - O'Donnell had the perfect setting with the natural early July full moon and his own Moon affixed to his design. I am not sure Snider and O’Donnell knew their design of RENT would open under a full Summer July Moon.
In the second act director Troupe and lighting designer O'Donnell has the cast light candles and invites the audience to do the same. The mood is moving and impressive. Busy costume designer Lisa Danz has celebrated RENT a few times in the past and her experience dressing this 18 member cast is rich with Jon Larson's themes and color tones for the original 90’s street perfection. Danz is also very busy this summer dressing other productions including the Oakland Woodminster stage.
The night I visited this production sound engineer Blaire Jackson and his team Mikala Slotnik and Sean St Ange had the difficult task of keeping the leads mic’d. Many solo’s were lost due to mic’s missing their cues and it was rare that the many Phone cues were not hit. But we all know the sound of an old phone line ring - so it worked out as the famous RENT phone messages hit their cues. Another disappointment was Vanessa Barrios choreography, RENT is not known for a dance show, many numbers are set to anthem songs based with marches and fists in the air.
The propulsive staging help move the material as the cast climbed and scattered throughout the vast set. The first act show stopper “La Vie Boheme” was a bit clumsy but still powerful. Angel's explosive entrance in “Today for You” was lost, and the talented Lysander Abadia lacked the sachet of the original swagger energy.
Stage Manager Frankie Jensen had a busy Truss Crew including Alexa Simon, David Jefferies, Kyle Dalton, Mikala Slotnick and others who wrangled the 18 cast members. Some highlights of this summer cast include Anne Marie Salgado slays as the performance artist Maureen with her sharp voice and infectious energy. The solid Marissa Madan plays Joanne, her girlfriend. Matt Stein and David Kautz are Mark and Roger and they do their best but they both struggle in the duet “What You Own”. The villain Benny is played by the savvy Jamari McGee, and Angel's boy friend Tom Collins is played by the compelling Charles Anthony.
A highlight of the busy ensemble is Javier de Guzman who is terrific in many of the company numbers and shines in his short solo. Stephen Sondheim's spirit lives in this show and as Larson's muse he followed this show as he did with many of the writers he mentored. The company was hyped as the opening weekend audience at the Smith Theatre sent their love to these actors. They performed an art piece that is meaningful and still relevant in our current time. Jonathan Larson’s legacy and the message of love this show brings will continue to live on for many years and beyond.
Ohlone College Summerfest Presents
Book, Music and Lyrics by
Directed by Dawn L. Troupe
Choreography by Vanessa Barrios,
Music Directors Catherine Snider and Victor De La Cruz
Producers Chris Booras and Chris Warden
Must close, July 17th
Smith Center for the Arts Outdoor Amphitheater
43600 Mission Boulevard Fremont Ca
Running Time 2 hours 40 minutes
PHOTO CREDIT: VIDEO CLIPS Vmedia Arts
Sondheim insert courtesy Laura Collins-Hughes NYT
SHOW CLIPS REEL - Ohlone College Theatrefest 2022
THE STORY OF RENT
"Rent" was written at the height of the AIDS epidemic by an emerging playwright named Jonathon Larson. The libretto is equal parts autobiography and an updated version of "La Boheme." The show ran for twelve years at the Nederland Theatre on Broadway, but Larson died suddenly of a non-AIDS related ailment just as his masterpiece was opening to great success. Larson was well acquainted with Stephen Sondheim and his influence can be heard in much of the score.
The story revolves around a year in the lives of roommates Roger Davis, a documentarian and your narrator. They live rough in the loft of a former music publishing house owned by a former roommate and hustler named Benny. Mark is based on the late playwright Larson. Mark is Jewish and lonely. His journey is a search for family while living as an artist. Mark has been dumped by his sexy, wild child, girlfriend, Maureen. Roger lives with a double whammy; a case of musical writer's block, and an HIV diagnosis.
Roger and Mark are destitute and living in a space without central heat or electrical service or other essentials we might count as minimal. Next door is an empty lot with a homeless camp. It is defended by Roger's ex, Maureen. She is a hot red-haired performer, free spirit, and downtrodden advocate now living with a female lover and attorney named Joanne. Benny offers a continuing rent-free existence (such as it) if Roger and Mark can discourage Maureen from making trouble that prevents him from using the space now occupied by the homeless camp for other purposes.
"Rent" is a complex character study of all these people. Angel dies of HIV. Mimi and Roger fall out based on Benny's temptation. Mimi sickens on the street only to be revived by Roger's love for her.