Walking into Shadowbox Live's snazzy Brewery District theater was a bit of a homecoming for me. I had been a frequenter of Shadowbox back in the late 1990's, when it was a relatively fledgling cabaret company in a small, but cool and edgy warehouse space in downtown Columbus. I fell in love with their rock opera performances, and was also impressed by the dedication of their performers who "do it all"- doubling as kitchen staff, wait-staff, ushers, bartenders, tech support…you name it, even on show nights. There was something humbling and authentic about their entire ensemble that made the fact that they were also incredible entertainers all the more appealing. The company made a move to its Easton location in 1999, after losing the Spring St. space to a fire. As of August, 2011, the Shadowbox moved back to its home in downtown Columbus with a state-of-the-art space, yet reviving that old warehouse-feel in its design, and bringing with it, all of the class of a vintage theater. Walking into this new place, it immediately felt like the Shadowbox I had been so enamored with again.
That being said, when you take on an iconoclastic production such as Jonathan Larson's RENT, you either have a whole lot of talent in your back pocket, or you are just plain ludicrous. Fortunately for Shadowbox Live, it was a case of the former that resulted in a fantastic opportunity to see this incredible story about Bohemians in Alphabet City, NYC struggling with life, love and AIDS, brought to life in local form. Admittedly, having long ago fallen in love with the original Broadway Cast recording of this show, I had a pretty solid idea in my head as to how each of these characters must act and sound, and I was a little concerned that I would walk away disappointed. It did not take long at all to convince me that Columbus' Shadowbox Live talent was more than capable of delivering.
John Boyd's opening scene portraying Mark Cohen, the aspiring filmmaker, was spot-on. He was an immediately recognizable interpretation, very reminiscent of Anthony Rapp's original role, even nailing the hand gestures that convey his character's anxiousness and wearing his trademark scarf and black-frame glasses. He added his own angsty edge to Mark that made him a little angrier, and that much more intriguing. Boyd had superb vocals, particularly in the rocking, "La Vie Boheme", a tongue-twisting Bohemian rhapsody number that is lightening fast and thoroughly entertaining. His Mark Cohen was wonderfully consistent and stable through the entire show, which helped anchor the other characters- perfect since Cohen's documentary film of himself and his friends is central to the plotline as well.
BranDon Anderson played the role of struggling, HIV-positive musician, Roger Davis, Cohen's roommate and best friend. Anderson's Roger was a bit less gritty than I expected, but he played quite well off of Boyd's Mark. He delivered some really nice, rich vocals on "One Song Glory", but was at his best when romancing pole dancing drug addict Mimi Marquez, played by Nikki Fagin.
Speaking of Fagin, she brought a fabulous set of pipes to the stage, whether rocking it out on the reckless "Out Tonight", a grungy little howl-at-the-moon number, or taking it down a notch for the tender and regretful "Without You", Fagin's vocal control was flawless. Her tiny frame lending fragility to Mimi that counterbalanced the incredible strength of her voice and combining to create great chemistry with Anderson's Roger. Fagin shines as this strung out, desperate to find love, young woman also battling AIDS.
Lesbian performance artist Maureen Johnson, played by Noelle Grandison, recently dumped Mark Cohen to shack up with Joanne Jefferson, an Ivy-League public interest lawyer played by Kara Wilkinson, This humorous twist of fate love-hate triangle produces great comedic moments such as the delightful "Tango Maureen" in which Mark meets Joanne and tells her the details of his ill-fated relationship with Maureen, only to find Joanne recognizes those 'signs" all too well. Kara Wilkinson plays Joanne as sweeter, kinder, and far less neurotically anal-retentive than I am used to, but is likable none-the-less. Noelle Grandison's Maureen is self-absorbed without being overbearing, and pulls off the wacky "Over the Moon" without being totally eccentric. Together, they were lovely in one of my favorite numbers from RENT, the fabulous female duet "Take Me or Leave Me", where Maureen and Joanne lay it all out on the table in a relationship ultimatum that ends with their break-up. My only difficulty was that they were so good together that I "forgot" that Maureen ever had a relationship with Mark- Wilkinson's scenes with Boyd's Cohen lacked the on-going chemistry that creates part of the tension between Joanne and Maureen. I'll chalk that up to my own insanely huge fan girl worship of Idina Menzel and Tracie Thoms, as Wilkinson and Grandison were incredibly talented in their own right to tackle these roles and leave me applauding.