Musical theatre in Peterborough reaches its zenith with Rent

Epic and flawless, the Art For Awareness production runs until February 28th at Showplace in Peterborough

Shannon McCracken as Mimi Marquez and Carl Christensen as Roger Davis in the Art For Awareness production of "Rent - The Musical", running from February 20-28 at Showplace in Peterborough as Mimi Marquez (photo: Linda McIlwain / kawarthaNOW)
Shannon McCracken as Mimi Marquez and Carl Christensen as Roger Davis in the Art For Awareness production of Rent - The Musical, running from February 20-28 at Showplace in Peterborough (photo: Linda McIlwain / kawarthaNOW)

Over the past few months, there’s been a growing buzz about the Art For Awareness production of Rent – The Musical. Through social media and various media outlets, Rent has become one of the most anticipated theatrical productions of the year.

One look at the list of cast members and anyone familiar with Peterborough theatre knows this would probably be a successful show. Director Sarah Tye and Geoff Bemrose have packed many of the most talented performers in Peterborough’s world of musical theatre into this production.

But is it all hype? Can a show be destined to be a hit based only on a pool of great talent?

Well, despite my high expectations, I wasn’t even close to being prepared for how good this show actually is.

Rent is more than a triumph: the production is epic in proportion. In a local theatrical landscape that’s oversaturated with musicals, the Art For Awareness production has raised the bar dangerously high. Musical theatre in this city has reached its zenith with Rent.

Originally developed by playwright Billy Aronson and musician Johnathan in the late 1980s, Rent made its Broadway debut in 1996. Shockingly modern at the time of its release, Rent captivated audiences with its staunch depiction of New York youth culture of the ’90s and by bringing still-controversial subject matter such as homosexuality, drug addiction, poverty, and AIDS into the mainstream. Rent would go on to win four Tony awards in 1996, including best musical, and quickly became a worldwide sensation. Closing in 2008 after 5,123 performances, Rent is still considered one of the most important Broadway productions of all time.

Hannah Bailey as Maureen Johnson gets the crowd to chant "Moo" as she performs "Over the Moon" (photo: Linda McIlwain / kawarthaNOW)
Hannah Bailey as Maureen Johnson gets the crowd to chant “Moo” as she performs “Over the Moon” (photo: Linda McIlwain / kawarthaNOW)
Rent chronicles the year in the life of a group of friends living in the Alphabet City neighborhood of Manhattan in the mid 1990s. Aspiring filmmaker Mark Cohen (portrayed by Ryan Hancock) is your guide through the chaotic lives of his bohemian friends, who are trying to live and survive in a city filled with music and joy, ambition and passion, and dreams and death — in a dark and often cruel world that seems to constantly be against them.

Making up Mark’s world include: his musician roommate Roger Davis (Carl Christensen) who, stricken with the HIV virus, is dealing with the loss of his girlfriend and trying to write meaningful songs before he dies; their friend Tom Collins (Dane Shumak), a gay anarchist intellect; downstairs neighbor Mimi Marquez (Shannon McCracken), a wild-child club dancer and junkie who falls in love with Roger; Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen Johnson (Hannah Bailey), a high-energy performance artist who left Mark for a woman; Joanne Jefferson (Bronte Germain), an uptight lesbian social activist and Maureen’s new lover; Benjamin Coffin III (Kelsey Powell), Mark and Roger’s former pal and roommate and now sleazy landlord; and Angel Dumott Schunard (Andrew Root), an eccentric and endearing drag queen with a joyful disposition despite his affliction with AIDS. Together they form their own loving, albeit often dysfunctional, inner city family.

Art For Awareness presents Rent

Bringing Ryan Hancock and Carl Christensen together on stage as Roger and Mark is pure magic. Two of the finest male vocalists in the Peterborough community, these two men are powerhouses of musical theatre and their union is dynamic.

Ryan is a likeable presence on stage and helps bring the audience through the various events of the drama and the eccentric individuals who make up his world. Carl brings a heavy sense of drama to the production and his golden voice moves the audience with each note he sings, especially in the haunting ballad “One Song Glory”.

Christensen and Hancock are the backbone on which the production rests and both give brilliant and moving performances.

While I’ve seen most of the primary players in Rent on stage many times before, to my knowledge I’ve never seen Shannon McCracken perform. Her performance stunned me and made me wonder where she’s been hiding all this time. This young woman is the true definition of a triple threat: she can sing, she can act, and she’s an incredible dancer.

With powerful solos and incredible movement, this beautiful performer not only hypnotized me at times, but is the character who grows the most throughout the production. Unhinged and out of control, Mimi shows many sides to her personality: from whimsical and mysterious in her first appearance during “Light My Candle” (her first of numerous duets with Christensen) to her erotic performance of “Out Tonight” and into her tragic moments near the production’s conclusion. Her moving performance makes her an endearing character throughout the show. After seeing her perform in Rent, I’ve added Shannon to my list of favorite performers in Peterborough — I can only hope to see much more of her in the future.

I have always loved watching Bronte Germain sing with Ryan Hancock, and they perform brilliantly again together in the number “Tango Maureen”. Any chance to see Bronte and Ryan perform together is worth it. An emotional singer and a wonderful performer, Bronte takes on a role unlike any I’ve seen her perform before. Uptight and clinical, she harnesses the spirit of Lilith Crane in her performance.

Bronte also finds a new performance partner in Hannah Bailey, and the two play off one another wonderfully in “Take Me or Leave Me”.

It was a joy to see Hannah, one of my favorite performers in Peterborough, move into the spotlight in the role of Maureen. While I’ve seen her before on stage, I had no idea just how funny she actually is. Her performance piece of “Over the Moon” is astonishingly funny and got one of the biggest audience responses of the night. Just when I thought I knew what to expect from Hannah Bailey, she pulls off this brilliant character and shows another exciting and delightful side of herself.

Shannon McCracken as Mimi Marquez and Andrew Root as Angel Dumott Schunard  (photo: Linda McIlwain / kawarthaNOW)
Shannon McCracken as Mimi Marquez and Andrew Root as Angel Dumott Schunard (photo: Linda McIlwain / kawarthaNOW)
There’s no doubt Andrew Root in the role of Angel steals every scene he’s in and becomes the audience favorite. Who would ever guess that Andrew would look so good in a dress and hooker boots? Whimsical, beloved, and larger than life, Andrew’s performance is a true triumph in a production filled with triumphs. Moving and powerful, Root gives a truly remarkable performance.

Rent is a show filled with both joy and tragedy. Many of the musical numbers — especially those that feature the entire company — are filled with so much colourful energy that you’ll be amazed at the talent in the Peterborough community. This is not the type of show you typically see in this city — this is big city theatre.

The dance numbers choreographed by Rachel Bemrose are superb, and the large musical numbers are filled with emotion. The highlight of the entire show is easily the finale of the first act, “La Vie Boheme/I Should Tell You”, which shows the true talent of the cast of this show. It brings together the joy, the music, the dancing, and the youthful enthusiasm of this entire company.

I’ll admit I also often found myself with misty eyes, especially during Dane Shumak’s beautiful gut-wrenching solo in “Goodbye Love”.

Shannon McCracken as Mimi Marquez (photo: Linda McIlwain / kawarthaNOW)
Shannon McCracken as Mimi Marquez (photo: Linda McIlwain / kawarthaNOW)
But it’s not just the major roles that stand out in this production. Often it’s the small roles that create the inner city world with its familiar sights and characters, such as Jade Plumley’s Squeegee Kid character, Meg O’Sullivan’s bag lady, and Kevin Lemieux as a hassled waiter. Just as you recognize familiar faces in the downtown streets of our city, you’ll recognize the faces of the individuals that make up the world of Rent. It truly becomes a community of its own.

Art for Awareness’s Rent is a high-energy show where the guys are cool and the girls are beautiful. It’s a powerful production that’s an obvious labour of love for all involved — from the creative set design to the talents of the musicians, dancers, chorus, costume designers, performers, producers, and directors. Rent never falters and it’s flawless. Without a doubt, Rent is one of the most remarkable shows I have seen on the Peterborough stage and is worth every single bit of hype it has received.

Rent runs from February 20th to 28th at Showplace Performance Centre (290 George St. N., Peterborough). Tickets are $26 ($21 for students) with partial proceeds of the ticket sales going to Peterborough AIDS Resource Network (PARN) and the Youth Emergency Shelter (YES). Note that the show contains mature themes and may not be suitable for all audiences.

Check out these photos of Rent taken by kawarthaNOW’s talented staff photographer Linda McIlwain.

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