RENT is not up to Bellissima’s usual high standards

THE BASICS:  RENT, the musical by Jonathan Larson, directed by Nicolette Navarro, presented by Bellissima Productions, starring Ben Caldwell as Roger, Aaron Saldana as Mark, Timiyah Love as Mimi, Heather Casseri as Maureen, Sam Crystal as Joanne, El Tyner as Collins, Lio Salazar as Angel, and Augustus Donaldson as Benny. 9/8 – 24, Fri – Sat at 7:30, Sun at 3:00 at the Lorna C. Hill Theatre, 429 Plymouth Ave Suite #2, Buffalo, NY 14213 (716) 218-8530 Note: Friday 9/22 RENT will start at 8:00 for Curtain Up!

RUNTIME: 2-1/2 hours

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Set in the East Village of New York City, RENT follows a year in the life of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling under the shadow of HIV/AIDS during the 1980s.  They fall in and out of love, argue, deal with police, evictions, drugs, and, during the Christmas season, cold weather.  There is a Content Warning: sexual themes; simulated sexual acts, use of drugs, and drinking; strong language, flashing lights. 


This production was my third RENT, having seen the 2019 Broadway tour at Shea’s (2-1/2 Buffalos) and then Starring Buffalo’s semi-staged production at Shea’s 710 (not reviewed).  It’s not my favorite musical and I’m mentioning that right up front because this is a somewhat negative review and I want to provide the actors with “plausible deniability” as in “what can you expect… he didn’t even like the Broadway tour.”

But there were some positives.  Usually, I can’t stand the character “Maureen’s” performance art about the cow jumping over the moon.  But I’ll be damned.  I was completely charmed by Heather Casseri’s take on the monologue.  Gotta love those N.U. theater majors.  Her performance was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise high-schoolish production.  Her on-stage on-again/off-again lover, “Joanne,” was played by Sam Crystal, who always brings a little crazy magic to every role.

And overall the choreography was fresh (Jacob Ducoli, Mia LaMarco, Quinn McGillion, choreographers), especially for the song “La Vie Boheme.”  It’s a busy musical, the dancing for each character has to be unique to the personality, and the choreographic trio did well.

Photos by Nicolette Navarro

Unfortunately, there was a very annoying scratchiness problem with Collins’ (El Tyner’s) head mic that was slightly better in the second act, but it did put a damper on my enjoyment.  I actually was looking forward to the song “I’ll Cover You” but that was drowned out by the crackling.  Also, I have to admit, the signature tune “Seasons of Love” (525,600 minutes) just felt more like a camp sing-along.

But it was the out-of-tune singing that was the biggest problem.  In Puccini’s opera, LA BOHEME, upon which RENT was based, Rodolfo (here “Roger”) is the central character with the most and the best arias.  But in this production of RENT, “Roger” was clearly having intonation problems.  

I’ve been a fan of Bellissima Productions for a while now.  Their performance of HEAD OVER HEELS (music by The Go-Gos) was good and although I didn’t get over to their recent AMERICAN IDIOT (music by Green Day) I was told by people whose opinions I respect that it was also good.  So, I’m not sure what happened here with RENT.  I have every reason to expect that their next production (BURN/THIS, the play by Lanford Wilson with themes of gay identity and relationships coming in October) will be back to their usual standards. 

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

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