The best and worst part about this gig is getting to write about brand-new artists. Best, because every drama critic dreams of discovering the “next big thing,” or at least lending crucial encouragement to an emerging talent. Worst, because many creatives (present company included) crash in their early efforts before finding their footing, and it can be difficult balancing a reviewer’s responsibility to paying customers against a personal preference not to piss on yet-unrealized potential. Sometimes, as in the case of Clandestine Arts’ debut production of Rent (at Orlando Shakes through Aug. 18), it can be a bit of both.
After seeing Jonathan Larson’s rock musical nearly a dozen times since its 1996 Broadway premiere (including the national tour and GOAT versions I’ve reviewed) it’s hard finding fresh surprises in it, but Clandestine starts on the right foot with solid casting. I appreciated that the three leads made efforts not to strictly mimic their famous forebears: Aaron VanderYacht’s Mark drops the character’s signature scarf and neurotic tics, retaining his nebbishy niceness; Tony Flaherty’s Roger is less anarchic rocker than emo moper, but can belt when required; and Gabriella Whiting is sexy and strong-voiced as Mimi (if not quite skanky enough for a teenage junkie stripper), but I feared for her every step in suicidally high heels on the impressive but unstable multilevel set.
Even better are the supporting same-sex couples. Lindsay Lavin nails Maureen’s absurdist “Over the Moon” protest piece, and meets her comic timing match in Elaina Walton’s Joanne. Kristen-Alexander Griffith (Angel) and Devon Settles Jr. (Tom Collins) are both veterans of the national tour, and their professional experience shows; Settles in particular is a dead ringer in form and voice for role originator Jesse L. Martin. Acknowledgment is also due to Actors’ Equity members Jarvis Derrell and Injoy Fountain, “Seasons of Love” soloists who blend beautifully with an enormous ensemble largely composed of college students and theme park performers.
Rent’s production, direction, design and co-choreography are all credited to recent transplant Derek Critzer. I applaud the 22-year-old’s ambition and exuberance, but his show displays signs of overextension. The shallow Goldman stage is frequently overwhelmed by the 24-member cast, with sluggish transitions and odd lighting cues compounding the congestion. And staging innovations like a strangely static “Contact” and inappropriate interpretive dance during “Will I?” serve to neuter the script’s raw sensuality and gloss over grittier moments.
Still, such first-timer flaws will likely be forgiven by local Rentheads, who should find this production as satisfying as any of the half-dozen that have been mounted here in the last few years. I’m looking forward to Clandestine Arts’ sophomore offering, assuming they can improve on the polish, but I’d hoped for their sake to see more than an almost-half-full theater on Saturday night of their opening weekend.
Orlando can be a hard market to make your mark in, as Critzer and his company may be discovering. Tonight (Aug. 14), Brendan O’Connor holds the first of his Artist’s Survival Guide seminars at Urban ReThink, featuring local luminaries like Terry Olson, director of Orange County Arts and Cultural Affairs, and Flora Maria Garcia, president of United Arts of Central Florida, to educate emerging visual artists. I’d like to steal the phrase from Brendan (hey, think of it as synergy!) and conclude this column with an abbreviated installment of my ongoing “Performing Artist’s Survival Guide”:
Do the right play
Clandestine’s upcoming season – Last Five Years, Avenue Q, Next to Normal – comprises shows that have all been staged locally multiple times. Though it’s tempting to trot out a popular favorite, it’s easier to attract attention with something that hasn’t been played to death.
The price is right (or wrong)
With a $30 ticket (a portion is donated to the Hope & Help Center for HIV/AIDS), Clandestine’s Rent is priced in the same league as Mad Cow and Shakes shows. Established companies may get away with $20 or more, but newcomers should shoot for $10-$15 to lure curious cheapskates.
Facebook isn’t face time
Event invites are appreciated, but they don’t displace direct communication. Attend others’ shows to network with patrons and fellow performers, and send (timely, complete) press releases to the local papers. Because, singing bohemians aside, some people still use Orlando Weekly for something other than kindling.