Over the Moon for ASU’s Rent

By on 6 October, 2014 in Lynne Schneider with 0 Comments

Rent flyer Rent debuted Friday night at ASU’s Tullibody Fine Arts Center. Jonathan Larson’s 1996 award-winning rock opera chronicles a year in the life of a hipster tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Poor, young New York City artists struggle to find love, to express themselves, to feed their habits, and to hang on to unheated, electricity-free apartments. Homelessness in winter is death and no one can pay the rent.

Alabama State University students’ energetic brilliance reignites Larson’s 90’s-era ensemble saga of poverty, homophobia, heroin addiction, and HIV/AIDS. Tristian Fitchard majestically sang the role of Roger, an HIV-positive musician who longs to write really glorious music before the disease destroys his genius.

Roger’s storyline is particularly poignant in light of Larson’s own sudden death, although the composer died not from The Virus, but from an undiagnosed genetic flaw. For years, Larson waited tables while he wrote both lyrics and music. Larson loved Giacomo Puccini’s perennially popular opera La Bohème, a tragedy set in 1840’s Parisian French Quarter. Rent was set to debut (well off off-Broadway) on the 100th anniversary of La Bohème’s 1896 debut. That trivia bit caught the eye of The New York Times.

The Times interviewed Larson the day before his debut. Like Mark, the aspiring filmmaker played Friday night by ASU’s charismatic Tyler Tate, Larson stood at the brink of fame. But before he saw the curtain rise on his own magnificent success, Larson suffered an aneurism. Dead at 35, the writer-composer never saw the glory his work went on to achieve.

Rent won many prestigious awards, including three Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. On Broadway, Rent enjoyed a lucrative 12 year run of more than 5,000 performances.

Now ASU deftly adapts that twentieth century New York telling of an eighteenth century Parisian tale. The timeless longings of youth frame an imperative message for our twenty-first century. Graffiti painted on backlit cloth doorways starkly remind us that disease, addiction, homelessness, and homophobic violence still afflict us.

ASU’s lush blues, gospel, hip-hop and Motown overtones translate last century’s rock opera into a performance so hypnotically beautiful and energetically joyful, that it might well be hard to recall any sorrows.

The show’s few flaws – some sound mix imbalances, some negotiation for the right key between onstage vocalists and the backstage student jazz ensemble – were eclipsed by Salome Smith’s gorgeous performance as Joanne, by the comedic and vocal brilliance of Jasmine Gatewood as Maureen and Tyrell Turmon as Angel, and by the deep talent pool of ASU’s ensemble cast.

After the cast took its bow, Angel took the stage, still ghostly pale and garbed in white. He asked us to remember, outside the theater, not just the consummate pleasure of song and dance, but also the compassion the musical so powerfully portrays. Certainly, ASU’s Rent was wonderfully unforgettable.

The musical runs October 8-11 at 7:00 nightly.

Dr. Lynne D. Schneider, Assistant Professor of English at Alabama State University, moved to sunny Montgomery from the frigid north (Upstate New York), delighted to discover that she had accidentally packed her windshield scraper. Before coming to ASU, she taught at SUNY Delhi, Broome Community College and Binghamton University. She also edited, wrote, cartooned, and took photographs for her local newspaper, earned her doctorate at Binghamton, and was Art Editor for BU’s Harpur Palate literary journal. Schneider won a poetry residency at The Saltonstall Foundation in Ithaca, New York and her poetry has appeared in The Patterson Review and other journals. She also published “Stuffed Suits and Hogwild Desire,” a chapter in Kermit Culture, the first scholarly study of Jim Henson’s Muppets.

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