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Mimi triumphant: Fernandez in Rent.

Rock & Rebirth

By Ralph Hammann

Rent

 

Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, directed by Michael Greif

Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, Mass., Aug. 30

By the time this review appears, Rent will have run its course at Pittsfield’s newest treasure, the fabulously and painstakingly restored Colonial Theatre. And by now, the word should be out that no matter what one’s feelings are regarding Rent, the experience of seeing it at this 103-year-old theater was impressive to say the very least. At the most, the totality of the experience was extraordinarily uplifting as it signaled, symbolically and realistically, a major phase in the rebirth of Pittsfield.

Remember when Pittsfield used to be a major destination for all of Berkshire County’s outlying towns? Well, it’s back, and with the Colonial comes the very real invitation to live simultaneously in the ornate past and the less frilly present.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates this collision of cultures so dramatically as the presentation of the edgy, gritty and raw Rent in a theater that bespeaks elegance, grandeur and regality. The tension between the old and new was thrilling, especially given the Rent set, which strips away the artifice of theater with its evocation of a theater’s dark brick upstage walls standing in for the dilapidated walls of an artists’ tenement and its near surroundings.

The situation and interconnected stories of ailing and flailing lovers were famously adapted from Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème by Jonathan Larson, who died hours after the final off-Broadway dress rehearsal in 1996.

Where tuberculosis lurks in the background and claims the life of La Bohème’s Mimi, Rent features four major characters who are HIV-positive. The musical is about the will to survive and to even transcend death and despair in the least hospitable of environments.

While much of its music is not to my taste, the young non-Equity cast of this touring production makes up for any such shortcomings with talent, energy and sincerity. This is one of those rare touring companies, and non-union at that, that can boast a freshness that easily rivals the company I saw on Broadway.

With one of the Colonial Theatre’s major attributes being its superb acoustics, it is a pity that so much of the music was overamplified to the degree that enormous passages of lyrics were indecipherable. Due to its rock nature, Rent necessarily resides in electronics, but one hopes that future shows or singers will be encouraged to test the Colonial’s acoustics first.

Even with the handicap, a few of the cast members cut through the blare with clarity. Tracy McDowell was a dynamic Maureen, even making dynamic work of the character’s ill-written performance-art monologue. As Roger, Bryce Ryness provided strong grounding and a vibrant voice for the show’s central love story. But it was Arianda Fernandez’ Mimi who most completely dominated the stage with her crisp articulation and resonant intonation of her lovely soprano voice. Even against the worst cacophony, Fernandez remained in control without ever losing the delicacy and intimacy of her voice. Likewise her dancing, as she cut a sleek, sexy figure against the grimy, monochromatic background in her shimmering, blue-liquid tights.

While the entire cast moved and moved us with infectious energy, the other standout in dance was Ano Okera’s Angel, as an irrepressible drag queen who comes close to sharing the show’s emotional center with Mimi and Roger.

Thinking that a traditional musical, closer to the era of the Colonial, would be more appropriate, Rent at first seemed an unfortunate choice to inaugurate the revived theater. However, it turns out that Rent was probably an ideal choice. The very heterogeneous audience included many students who may have been drawn to the theater more by the material as opposed to the venue. I shouldn’t be surprised if the theater has worked its magic and seduced a new audience for future offerings.

Word is that the word theater was dropped from the venue’s promotions because there was a perception that the word would negatively impact potential patrons who would feel threatened by the notion of going to the “theater.” If this is true, it is insipidly reasoned and reflects a provincialism on the part of the organizers as opposed to the citizens of Pittsfield. By whatever name it goes, this is a must-see theater where one can easily get lost in the architectural sweeps and flourishes, coves and alcoves, myriad moldings, vibrant Victorian colors, and gold-leaf ornamentation. Stand in the front of the stage or in one of the box seats (better for viewing the theater than the show), and feel a rush at the tidal wave of multileveled seats that surges up and forward, making the theater both grand and intimate.

Woof

Dog Stories

By Keith Huff, directed by Laura Margolis

Stageworks/Hudson, through Sept. 10

A “shaggy dog story” is defined (in Literary Terms) as “an extremely long and involved joke with a weak or completely nonexistent punch line. The humor lies in building up the audience’s anticipation and then letting them down completely.” Stageworks/Hudson’s world premiere of Keith Huff’s Dog Stories is the theatrical equivalent. This 90-minute production follows a silent widower Ira Cadwalader (Miller Lide) and his dog Sebastian (David Smilow) from the grave of Ira’s wife to the sunset at a beach in California. Along the way, Ira and Sebastian encounter planes, trains, buses, taxis, and people (Frank Liotti, Maggie Surovell, Pauline Boyd), each more contrived and inbred than a Westminster Kennel Club champion.

The picaresque quality of Dog Stories is well served by John Pollard’s scenic design and Andi Lyons’ lighting, both of which make excellent use of color. With the aid of six white, wooden end-tables that serve multiple uses, and the not-to-scale miniature papier-maché replicas of a plane, bus, and taxi that traverse upstage twirling wildly with sound effects that never failed to get giggles and applause from the capacity audience, artistic director Laura Margolis creates the singular stage pictures and brisk pace that are her benchmarks.

Margolis also gets the singular acting out of her two leads, the one holding the lead, Lide as widow Cadwalader, and the one wearing the lead, Smilow’s Sebastian. An actor as animal character is a theatrical gimmick with a rich history, and Smilow’s Sebastian carries the soul of the play. Dressed as a man, with knee and elbow pads, and a faded red bandana around his neck, Smilow stays in canine mode throughout the play, moving on all fours, attentive to his master Ira when a dog would be (meals) and when a dog wouldn’t be (fetch). The play allows Smilow to explore a variety of looks, movements, and sounds, and his is as focused and believable a performance as you’d hope for in a play called Dog Stories. There’s a marvelous moment when Smilow’s Sebastian even seems to converse with one of a series of narcissistic eccentrics—most of whom all end up seeming similarly tiresome, contrived, and purposelessly “theatrical.”

Fortunately, Smilow is matched by Lide’s Ira. Master and dog create the through line this play full of bad comic monologues desperately needs, and the silent Ira is full of meanings, emotions, and insights. Lide’s Ira is the audience’s surrogate, and the actor’s focus, commitment, and empathy save Dog Stories. Lide has the expressive power and focus of the silent-movie actor—he has the innocence of one of Chaplin’s child performers—and when Ira and Sebastian, having been refused entrance into Disneyland, sit at the beach to share an orange in the glow of the setting sun, you can taste the citrus and sadness in the silence.

—James Yeara


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