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Gateway Playhouse, Bellport, NY, May 20, 2017

Reviewed by Chip Deffaa for Cabaret Scenes

Photos: Jeff Bellante

Michelle Veintimilla, Anthony Festa, Moeisha McGill, Natalie Storrs, Jeremy Greenbaum

I saw Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent at the Gateway Playhouse yesterday and the songs—”Without You,” “Will I,” “What You Own,” “Seasons of Love,” “La Vie Boheme”—have been replaying in my head, once again, since then.

I have seen productions of Rent, both good and bad, many, many times since Larson wrote this groundbreaking show 21 years ago: Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop; then repeatedly on Broadway; and then Off-Broadway again, after the long original Broadway run ended. I caught the national tour when it came to Newark, New Jersey. I’ve seen regional productions in New York (Westchester Broadway Theater) and Connecticut (Triarts Sharon Playhouse). I’ve seen productions at the community-theater level (Wayne, NJ, YMHA); high-school level (Trumbull, Connecticut); and college level (Hofstra University). 

 And I continue to find more in Rent. I’m still surprised by how strongly it affects me. The ending hit me very powerfully yesterday. Sitting near me, by chance, was a 14-year-old girl—a vocal student of one of the stars of the production, Jeremy Greenbaum—who’d never before seen the show. She loved it. And when it was over, she said to me enthusiastically, “Doesn’t it make you just want to get out and do things?” It gave her inspiration, she noted—just as it always has given inspiration to me. Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, created a profound work, which I greatly admire. And this production is warmly recommended.

Larson’s musical, about young artists struggling to live fully—despite challenges of poverty, illness, the threat of impending death—was drawn from his own experiences, and those of his friends. (In the life-support scene, the names of three characters are the names of actual people Larson knew, who’d died of AIDS.) At the end of the show, we see footage of a film that the show’s narrator, Mark (a kind of stand-in for Larson, beautifully played by Jeremy Greenbaum) has made, memorializing his friends and their struggles. And in creating Rent, Larson masterfully memorialized his friends, too. He died just before his show opened. But the work, if performed well, has great power. And yesterday, to an extent that took me by surprise, I felt the work also has great poignancy. 

Jeremy Greenbaum and the company

I’m glad I went. The leads are all very well cast, and the actors are individuals, offering their own take on the material.
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 The strong, nicely varied score is well sung throughout. There are minor flaws in this production, which I’ll get to in a moment. But for the most part, director Matt Karris and the actors he has chosen get well into the spirit of the work. They perform with feeling, and it’s impossible not to be carried along. 

This production, in many ways—from the set design by Brittany Loesch to the musical arrangements by Steve Skinner and Tim Weil—has the feel of the original New York production. The leads—including Greenbaum as Mark Cohen, Anthony Festa as Roger Davis, Michelle Veintimilla as Mimi Marquez, Jared Dixon as Tom Collins, Andres Quintero as Angel Schunard, and Moeish McGill as Joanne Jefferson—understand the characters and offer realistic portrayals. 

Michelle Veintimilla and
Anthony Festa

I felt that the show was in good hands from the first few numbers. I liked that the performers were interesting in their own right. And, in contrast to what I’ve witnessed in some less-satisfying regional productions, they were not trying to copy the phrasing and inflections of the original New York cast members (as preserved on the original cast album and in the film adaptation, which retained most of the original cast). That made this production feel more “real” than some I’ve seen where actors were clearly doing imitations of the performances of the show’s original stars. I wish the cast could do a longer run, or stay together to do the show in other theaters. They have a good feel for the material—which has not always been the case with regional productions I’ve seen. And the actors articulate clearly. This is one production in which you can understand every word. And that’s important, because there’s a lot going on in this show. If actors garble words—a common problem in the theater these days—it is easy to get lost. And Larson’s words deserve to be heard. 

Andres Quintero (R) and Jared Dixon

For the most part, I liked this production, and I left it feeling uplifted. Were there some flaws?  Sure.  None were deal-breakers for me, but I need to mention them. The musical staging of one important number, “Contact,” was simply wrong. The number should be performed with great Dionysian energy; the staging should suggest couples coupling—people seeking contact with one another, affirming life in the face of death. Larson’s own stage directions specified couples moving under sheets. But the strong eroticism of the original New York staging was greatly toned down in this Long Island production. And instead of couples making contact—the title of the number—we saw individuals dancing in place; that felt like a cop-out to me. Larson’s intent was compromised. I’m guessing that someone (director Karris, choreographer Gerry McIntyre, Executive Artistic Director Paul Allan?) may have decided to pull back a bit on the sexuality to soften the scene and make it a bit “safer” for older, more conservative ticket-buyers at a regional theater. But if you’re going to present Rent, present Rent—commit fully to the material. The scene pays off better if it is more “in your face” and has a kind of frenzied energy that was missing here. Larson and original director Michael Greif drove the scene home strongly, so that in the original production tension mounted in the theater until we learned Angel had died. And in this production, some of the impact of the original staging was lost. There were other occasional moments in the show when I wish more passion was projected.
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 And occasionally, one of the starving artists appeared too well-dressed. I sometimes wished the costume designer had picked clothing from second-hand stores, or found clothing that looked more consistently like that starving artists on the Lower East Side might wear. But these are relatively minor flaws in a generally very rewarding production of a unique, and still provocative show.

Chip Deffaa

Chip Deffaa is the author of 16 published plays and eight published books, and the producer of 24 albums. For 18 years he covered entertainment, including music and theater, for The New York Post. In his youth, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He is a graduate of Princeton University and a trustee of the Princeton "Tiger" magazine. He wrote and directed such Off-Broadway successes as "George M. Cohan Tonight!" and "One Night with Fanny Brice." His shows have been performed everywhere from London to Edinburgh to Seoul. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild, the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society, NARAS, and ASCAP. He’s won the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award, the IRNE Award, and a New Jersey Press Association Award. Please visit: