Angst by any other name: La Bohème and Rent a tale of two cities
When I called the Delaware Valley Opera Company (DVO, www.dv-opera.org ), the young lady on the phone was perplexed as to the reason for my palpable excitement. I had already explained that I was looking forward to seeing (and hearing) both La Bohème (at the DVO) and Rent at the Forestburgh Playhouse ( www.FBplayouse.com ) on consecutive nights, back to back.
I dont get it she said. What does one thing have to do with the other? Initially, I was aghast. I wondered (aloud) how it was possible that a company could be producing Puccinis glorious and heart wrenching score of love, despair and death without knowing that Jonathan Larson had created Rent (a story about being young and learning to survive, about falling in love and living for today) without making the connection. I gave the voice on the other end of the phone my brief synopsis of both shows, had some reservations and made some reservations, simultaneously.
In fact, Rent, which won the coveted Tony Award for best musical and a Pulitzer prize when it opened on Broadway, openly acknowledges that it is based on La Bohème. Puccini (Im just guessing here) is probably still unaware of the uncanny similarities.
Rent is set in an East Village industrial loft on Christmas Eve and opens with Mark (a young filmmaker) and Roger (an ex-junkie songwriter) bemoaning their tale of woe: no money, no food, no heat. K.J. Hippensteel and Josh Sassanella (as Mark and Roger, respectively) both have strong, well trained voices and the opening number, Tune Up, sets the stage for what turned out to be an inspired production that was gorgeous to look at, beautiful to listen to and (as promised) heart-wrenching on the emotional scale.
La Bohème is set in a garret in Paris on Christmas Eve and opens with Marcello (an artist) and Rodolfo (a writer) bemoaning their tale of woe: no money, no food, no heat. Mark Garguillo and Erik Sparks (as Marcello and Rodolfo, respectively) both have strong, well trained voices and the opening number (sung in Italian with English supertitles) sets the stage for what tuned out to be a production that was beautiful to listen to. Hmmm.
It would be unfair (in my humble opinion) to compare both shows on their production values, since the DVO, under the guidance of artistic director Jim Blanton, is dependent on grants and funding from various sponsors and this has been a tough year for both in this troubled economic climate. The Forestburgh Playhouse, under the guidance of artistic director Norman Duttweiller, has stronger financial support and therefore is able to access a bit more in the sets, costume and lighting departmentsand it shows.
Suffice it to say, however, that both productions share a considerable amount of talent on stage. Both are entirely sung, with virtually no spoken word; and without incredibly strong voices, neither production would have been capable of holding its own. In Bohème, Julie Ziavras (as Mimi) and Jeanne Marie Lowell (as Musetta) have incredible range and deliver strong, powerful renditions of Puccinis lush and romantic score.
In Rent, Mia Gentiles Mimi and Kate Schwarzs Maureen are equally up to the challenge of Larsons complex, modern interpretation. Oddly, both shows shared a weak link in the role of the nasty landlord. David Marmanillo (as Rents Benny) and Raymond Uy (as Bohèmes Benoit) were ever-so-slightly off the mark, but neither seriously detracted to the overall effect on the part of either shows combined efforts.
It is no wonder that both productions have stood the test of time, although Rent would still have to be considered the love child of La Bohème. They both stand alone, but it is impossible (for me, anyhow) to see one without thinking of the other... well leave Moulin Rouge out of the equation altogether.
Both productions boast talent. Bohème showcases the performances of Gustavo Morales, Eric Barsness, Kevin Pinkel, Johanan Bickhardt and Jim Mould, supported by a large and talented ensemble. Rent stands out with supporting players Derrick Parks, Benai Boyd, Diego Diaz and Matt Dengler, among othersbut the ensemble work in Rent is truly amazing. These gifted young singers give it their all and they make the rafters of the playhouse resonate long after the audience has vacated the theater.
My recommendation? See them both and experience how the same story can be told in such diverse ways.
La Bohème runs through August 16 at the Tusten Theatre in Narrowsburg (845/252-7272) and Rent is at the Forestburgh Playhouse through August 16 (845/794-1194).
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