Milburn Stone Theatre Owns RENT

by David Bradford

The cast of RENT at Milburn Stone Theatre, running in North East, MD through December 4.

Because Milburn Stone Theatre’s production of RENT has so much meat to it, I warn you in advance, this is going to be a long review.  For those with limited time (and/or attention spans), let me just sum it up in three points. First, go see this production! Second, go see this production!! Third, leave the kids at home…and go see this production!!! Scroll down to the bottom of this article for date and location information.

RENT was and still is a ground breaking show. Jonathan Larson showed his talent and brilliance in this musical, which was the first of his to ever make it to Broadway.  Making the show more impactful, is the fact that Mr. Larson passed away the night before opening night of its original Off-Broadway run, so he never got to see it on Broadway.  If RENT is indicative of his talent, he would undoubtedly be one of the top Broadway composers today.

RENT is a modern adaptation of Puccini’s opera “La Bohème”.  It follows a year in the life of a group of people trying to survive in Alphabet City, in the East Village of New York City.  It is set in the mid-‘90’s among the realities of HIV. The toll the disease takes on people’s lives is a major theme of the show. More information about RENT itself can be found on Wikipedia at

Taking on such a deep, energetic, and popular show is no small undertaking. Milburn Stone Theatre steps up to the plate and hits one out of the park.  From the set, to the music, to the dancing, to the individual performers, one would be hard pressed to find a weak link.

The set is impressive. It is a multi-level, highly functional, and realistically detailed representation of an industrial loft in an abandoned building and the street area below it.  There are also ten video monitors spread throughout. Some are sitting on the various platforms, while others are built into the set.  There seems to be as many as five individual video feeds supplying the monitors.  When blended with a complicated but effective lighting design, the technical accomplishments of this production could rival those of many professional companies.

The show is anchored by an immensely talented ensemble of thirty.  Every one of them shows the determination, heart, and emotion necessary for this show.  Among the cast are some very talented dancers who step out of the group on occasion to perform lyrical numbers coinciding with action on the stage. The entire cast, under the musical direction of Marji Eldreth, sounds great and pulls off some amazingly well blended harmonies.

The lead actors in this production should not be overlooked.  Joseph Murphy as filmmaker Mark may, on the surface, appear stereotypically nerdy, but Mr. Murphy keeps his character on the correct side of the believability line. His strong vocals back that up.  Michael DeFlorio, as his musician roommate Roger, also is natural and believable, but due to a directing choice I will mention in a bit, his character is prevented from fully connecting with the audience.

James Mikijanic’s portrayal of their friend Tom Collins is powerful and touching. I was not sure about it at first as in all other productions I have seen of RENT, Tom Collins is African-American, but Mr. Mikijanic’s acting ability made me quickly forget my concern.  His love interest, Angel, a sweet, charming, and entertaining cross-dresser, is very ably handled by Eyvo.  His voice, athleticism, grace and charm, make you immediately fall in love with Angel.

The women in this show refuse to be outdone.  Erin Chamberlin as Roger’s girlfriend Mimi is wonderful, though I would caution Ms. Chamberlin on one thing. Mimi is a free spirited, hard partying, 19 year old girl, whose feelings for Roger are a new experience.  There are a few times when Ms. Chamberlin’s Mimi seems too much in control of the situation; showing too much maturity. Free Mimi!

The opposite suggestion is made to Kashana Roberts who plays Ivy League educated Joanne, the woman Mark’s girlfriend Maureen left him for.  Joanne is supposed to be a hard-nosed, no nonsense mature woman , who is always in control (except around Maureen). Ms. Roberts’s portrayal, while good, seems a little young at times.  However, her solo in “Seasons of Love” and her songs with Mark and Maureen more than make up for it.

Then there is Maureen, the wild performance artist. Wow!  What can be said about Courtney Gardner’s portrayal?  It is a shame that we don’t see Maureen until late in Act I, because Ms. Gardner’s personality and energy push the show’s overall level over the top.

While Milburn Stone’s production of RENT is undoubtedly a must-see production, there are a few criticisms I can make.  The first has to do with the dancing.  Bambi Johnson’s choreography is impressive and the dancers’ execution is equally as good. However, dance is highly overused in this production.  The inclusion of lyrical routines in many of the show’s songs serves as an incredible distraction and often buries the lead actors, their characterizations, and the story line.  For example, while the idea of representing Roger and his late girlfriend in dance during “One Song Glory” is a bold choice, it places Roger in the background. This song is a crucial part of allowing the audience to connect with Roger.  He should deliver that number downstage and eye to eye with the audience, not upstage obscured by dancers.  Where the lyrical distraction is most criminal is in “Without You”.  The audience has enough to do watching Mimi and observing the interaction between Tom and Angel.  Too much important story line is lost to the dance.

A similar case can be made about the video design put together by Marshall B Garrett.  There are times in the show where the video is a perfect addition. A good example is Angel in the closing shot of “I’ll Cover You (reprise)”.  It also serves well in the various “Christmas Bells” numbers and when Mark’s camera show’s live. But many times the video is just another element overused in the production.

Director S. Lee Lewis, should be thoroughly proud of this production, but in the future might consider a “less is more” approach. The book and music of this show and the talent of this production’s cast is more than enough to carry the show.  Without the added distractions, a greater level of intimacy can been achieved.

Those points notwithstanding, I will put this show as one of the best productions I have seen in community theatre in years!  Milburn Stone Theatre, its cast and crew, should be commended for a job well done.  Do not miss this production!

Book, music and lyrics by
Jonathan Larson
by S. Lee Lewis
Musical Direction by Marji Eldreth
Choreography by Bambi Johnson

November 25December 4, 2011
Milburn Stone Theatre
Cecil College
1 Seahawk Dr.
North East, MD

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