OGDEN — As a local theater critic and fan, I tend to get a lot of the same shows produced here in Utah. At UTBA, the three most reviewed shows in our archives are Joseph…, Newsies, and The Music Man, and the six most reviewed straight plays were all written by Shakespeare. So, it is refreshing when a theater company mounts a show with a little more edge or that are not often produced in the state. This is why I was excited to see The Ziegfeld Theater in Ogden is putting on Jonathan Larson‘s iconic Broadway musical Rent. While the end result is a bit of a mixed bag, I still admire the company for making the attempt on the show and the overall endearing night of theater they presented.
Rent is loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème and converts it into a rock opera about group of young adults trying to survive and create their art in New York’s Lower East Side in the 1990s. HIV/AIDS looms over the group, giving a sense of urgency to all of their individual causes and creative endeavors. The lead character is Mark, a struggling filmmaker who wants to capture the people that surround him but cannot find the right project until the end of the show when he produces a documentary about his friend Angel.
The production at Ziegfeld directed by Latoya Cameron has two big strengths: the production design by Rebecca Knowles, and the community spirit among the entire cast of actors. The stage is set up with two stories capturing the East Village apartment of Roger and Mark. This is particularly helpful in the “Contact” dance sequence in Act II, in which the characters use a sheet to bridge the gap between the two stories and bring Angel down as she dies.
The set also has screens on both sides of the stage that project various images, including the apartment complexes the characters are living in. This effectively transports the audience to the time and place of the East Village, New York. I also loved the excellent on-stage band led by music captain Maxx Teuscher, which performs throughout the show. More live orchestras and bands, please Utah theaters!
The other strength of Rent at Ziegfeld is the community spirit. It was clear everyone involved is trying their hardest, and there is genuine chemistry among all the performers. That is key in an ensemble show like Rent. This makes the ensemble numbers like “La Vie Boheme/I Should Tell You,” “Support Group,” and “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” the most effective of the night. I genuinely teared up at moments like Angel’s funeral and Mimi’s near-death experience, which says something about the rawness of the acting and the bond the cast seems to have with each other. I also loved seeing Britton Auman as Steve/The Man in the cast to bring in the ASL into the production. I have never seen that in Rent, and it added an additional layer of diversity and inclusion to the show.
The Ziegfeld advertises themselves as a “professional” “world-class musical theater in Ogden”, and the previous shows I have seen have lived up to that billing. (Last year’s Bright Star was especially outstanding.) So, I went into Rent with high expectations. Unfortunately, the singing across the board needed work. Nearly every performer has a mixture of good moments and stretches where they are off-pitch and struggling with the notes in this difficult score. On the other hand, the group singing worked best because the on-pitch voices could mask the individual weaknesses. Because Rent is a rock musical, I didn’t mind the strained singing too much, but every note still needs to be on pitch for the show to reach its full potential. The strongest singers are probably Dylan Floyd Panter as Benny and Noelani Brown as Joanne, though even they had some vocal struggles.
I really enjoyed the acting performances of Jesus Gomez-Villalobos as Angel and Avery Sims as Tom Collins. Both of them brought something new to the roles and had terrific chemistry together. I also thought Morgan Parry‘s costumes were a ton of fun. The best costume was the one Parry designed for Angel, which helped capture the joy of her character.
Despite some weak singing, I walked out of Rent at the Ziegfeld feeling uplifted. At its best, local theater inspires both cast and audience to be better, try harder and remind the audience of the value of the community. Rent has that at its heart and the cast at Ziegfeld really embodies those virtues. While the production was not perfect, I found value in those imperfections — which is the whole purpose of Rent, to begin with right?