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Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, August 3, 2000

The cast of 'Rent.'

Love, pain
portrayed in ‘Rent’

By John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin

The emotional devastation of the ongoing AIDS Holocaust in America is only one dark facet of the story Jonathan Larson tells in "Rent" but the single most compelling scenes last night involved the performances of Mark Ford (Tom Collins) and Shaun Earl (Angel Schunard) as a couple being wrenched apart by AIDS.

Other cast members had the vocal spotlight but Ford and Earl still caught and touched the heart as they silently portrayed the physical decline of a once vibrant African-American transvestite. No words were needed to convey the poignancy of the situation although Ford later gave the single most impressive vocal performance of the show when he took the lead on "I'll Cover You: Reprise."

Ford has a tremendous voice. Earl was an early, obvious favorite with the opening night crowd and particularly popular with the fans in the back of house. He plays Angel as a petite but equally assertive version of RuPaul and catches the eye in every scene.

The relationship between the two HIV-positive men is one of three contemporary love stories Larson set in the grim milieu of starving would-be artists and homeless derelicts in New York City. The performances are more interesting and substantial than the minimalist plot.

Larson speaks through Mark Cohen (Matt Caplan), a struggling filmmaker. Cohen is a passive protagonist more comfortable as an observer of life than as a participant. Cohen is Jewish although that fact is not developed as a significant facet of his character.

Other core characters include Mark's ex-girlfriend Maureen (Erin Keaney), a performance artist who dumped him for Joanne (Jacqueline B. Arnold), a lesbian attorney.

Roger (Cary Shields) is an HIV-positive musician who hopes to write one memorable song before he dies. Roger's girlfriend killed herself after she discovered they were HIV-positive. He and Mark share an unheated industrial loft.

Mimi (Saycon Sengbloh) is a drug addict who is also HIV-positive. She finds Roger attractive for no apparent reason beyond the fact that the plot requires it. She then pursues him, also for no apparent reason.

Benjamin Coffin III (Brian M. Love), escaped the milieu by marrying into money. He now owns the building Mark and Roger call home and offers to let them remain there rent free if they'll help expedite the quiet removal of the derelicts who camp in the vacant lot he owns next door. Maureen and Joanne opt to lead a demonstration protesting the evictions.

"Seasons Of Love," the ensemble number that opens Act II, is the most memorable and singable song in the show, but the back of the house went ape last night over Keaney's Act I showcase, "Over The Moon." The piece is a fine spoof of pretentious "performance art" and Keaney played it past the point of absurdity.

Sengbloh dominates several key numbers with such seductive power that Roger's resistance to Mimi's advances seems preternatural. Sengbloh has so much mesmerizing appeal in her early numbers ("Light My Candle" and "Out Tonight") that Mimi's visible decline in Act II is particularly poignant. One of the problems with the show as drama is that there isn't enough chemistry between the two to make us care whether they connect or not.

Arnold stands out opposite Caplan and Keaney in two great numbers, "Tango: Maureen" with Caplan and "Take Me or Leave Me" with Keaney.

It's unfortunate that this modern rock musical often falls short when it comes to basic sound quality. The small band was simply too loud in some places. Individuals were unintelligible in others. Larson apparently intended "Christmas Bells" to be an incomprehensible cacophony and so it is.

"Rent" contains a message that many would consider universal: Love is where you find it and can transcend race or sexual orientation.

Bullet "Rent": Playing at the Neal Blaisdell Center Concert Hall 2 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, and 7 p.m. Sundays, with additional 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 13.

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