For five years, after Bill Hanney bought and reopened the historic barn theater in Matunuck, musicals at Theatre By the Sea were produced and staged by Ocean Sate Theatre Company, led by Producing Artistic Director Amiee Turner and Managing Director Joel Kipper. When the five years ended, Hanney did not renew their contract and Turner and Kipper had no choice but to take their ball and go home. That is, they took it to Warwick, Rhode Island, where they opened their own brand-spanking-new space on Jefferson Boulevard, near the airport. And the "ball" they took with them was their considerable expertise, skill and knowledge regarding how to put on theater of the highest caliber.
The inaugural season of the new Ocean State Theatre Company began with two holiday shows, followed by Neil Simon's Fools. For their first big musical production, they have chosen one of the most popular and beloved musicals of contemporary theater, Jonathan Larson's RENT. For those who are not "Rentheads," Larson's rock opera is based on Puccini's opera La boheme and revolves around a group of young, struggling artists and musicians, living in New York City in the mid-1990s, dealing with life, love, loss, creativity and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Larson's music and lyrics are beautiful and emotionally charged, creating every reaction from belly laughs to a shiver down the spine. They call for a cast of singers who can handle the vocal calisthenics while also living the songs and music truthfully on stage. It's in the vocal arena that this cast does stumble a bit. Hard to tell if it was because of opening night after a long week of technical rehearsals and previews, but vocal energy was sorely lacking in many instances. There were moments that called for supernova-like energy from performers who only mustered the flicker of a flame, which was disappointing.
Not helping was the fact that many of the actors were hard to hear. This was in part due to the live band in the pit. Yes, it's a rock musical, so it's going to be loud, but one can't help but wonder if something can't be done so that the band isn't drowning out the performers to such an extent. At times, though, the actors seemed to be almost mumbling, while other times they appeared to lose their breath or voice altogether for a moment. Again, hard to say why, but perhaps it's something that Music Director Esther Zabinski will be able to work on and improve next time around.
Luckily, the vocal deficiencies are overcome by two important factors. First is Turner, who directed the production. Not sure what her secret is, but she has an undeniable and uncanny talent for putting together an extraordinary ensemble of actors who have incredible chemistry together. You will believe these performers really are lifelong friends and you will feel everything they go through together. You might even have to remind yourself they're just actors who have only worked together for a few weeks of rehearsals and performances. Their chemistry and connections on stage are so real it's scary.
They are also that second factor that makes one forget the shortcomings of the vocal performances. They are so good, so real and believable, you really won't care about any minor problems. For example, Nora Fox as Mimi can't really hold her own during her big solo introduction, "Out Tonight," but you will forgive her when she breaks your heart in act two, particularly in "Without You." Antonio Tillman as Angel also seemed to have trouble with the demanding songs and lyrics. But again, he's so charismatic and fun to watch, you'll love him anyway.
Janet McWilliams and Kendra Payne, as Maureen and Joanne, respectively, deserve mention for what was, for me, the best solo or duet of the show. They finally demonstrated in "Take Me Or Leave Me" what can happen when two actresses have both the acting talent and the powerful singing voices to really come together and blow the doors off the set. Dan McInerney also shines throughout the production as Mark, including a chance to show off his quality singing in "What You Own." All of the ensemble numbers are uniformly excellent as well.
On a technical note, everything worked wonderfully except for the lighting design by Weston Wilkerson. There were far too many moving lights, with stars and swirls moving and flying around all over the place, usually to a distracting and annoying degree. This was especially true in scenes where less would have been more. Additionally, a poor choice was made to have the climactic scene in such low light that it's almost impossible to see the actors' facial expressions, which was unfortunate.