RENT The Musical reveals sorrows of epidemic, at Evalino Productions

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By Dr. Anton Anderssen

I know two people who died this week from Covid. The past year and a half has been a virtual nightmare, and it’s a repeat of what I went through in my early twenties.  Back then, we knew a virus was killing gays, but there was no treatment. At one point, we didn’t even know how it was spread. Jerry Falwell went on a crusade against gays, proclaiming “AIDS is a punishment for gay promiscuity.” Since it was perceived as a “gay disease” – as a  percentile of the American population, few people cared, especially religious charlatans like Falwell, who claimed to speak for God.

Rent (stylized as RENT) is a rock musical loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera La bohème (yes, as a purist, the letter b is not capitalized).  RENT tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and create a life in Lower Manhattan in the thriving days of bohemian Alphabet City, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.  I have seen La bohème many times, and even reviewed it at The Sydney Opera House.  Every time I hear a play inspired by La bohème, whenever anyone says “My name is Mimi” I want to scream “Run girl! You’re going to die a slow anguishing death!”

The music of RENT is very different from Puccini (who wrote perhaps the most beautiful aria in the world, O mio babbino caro).  But Seasons of Love from RENT has proved itself to withstand the test of time as an honored classic.

Now on stage at the Village Theatre in Canton Michigan is RENT, directed by John Sartor of Evalino Productions. The talent in this show is immense. Sartor is such a beloved director, the talent seeks him out, and this cast was phenomenal.  The lead in this musical is a character named Mark Cohen – being the very first person we see, and also the last to emerge from backstage to take a bow.  Although Mark is the lead, there are many “stars” in this show, as it has many subplots and interconnected relationships.  We know that Mark, at some point was dumped by a lesbian, and we know that Mark seems to be in a relationship with a camera, rather than a human. This is, after all, the story about bohemianism. Bohemianism is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people.  On one stage, we see people who are male, female, transgender, white, black, straight, gay, lesbian, drug addicted, rich, poor, and even criminal.  This is the antithesis of Ozzie and Harriet – all lines of conventional lifestyles have become blurred.  There are endless combinations and permutations.

My friend Becky Turza is in this cast. I know her as a tiny, sweet, soft-spoken healthcare worker who visited me when I was in the hospital. I didn’t know she was in the show – I try not to look at the program ahead of time, so I am surprised as each character arrives on stage. Becky plays the part of a queynte, and I’m referring the modern debased version of the word, not the meaning when it was used by Chaucer.  In row D, I had a close-up view of the performance, which included Becky, playing Maureen, break the shackles of her sweet, innocent self I have always known.  Right in front of me, I could not believe what I was seeing.  During intermission, I asked Director John Sartor, “Did I just see Becky pull down her pants and bear her bare arse?” He answered, “Yes, that is what you saw.”  That was very unconventional for both Becky and me.  I am 61 years old, I have never seen a woman’s arse. What has been seen cannot be unseen.  Becky has taken my visual virginity.

RENT centers around the life of two people living in the attic of an urban building, and they can’t pay their rent.  Just as we have seen during the pandemic, close to a million people could not pay their rent; fortunately a moratorium on evictions has been in place to keep these people from becoming homeless. The characters, Mark Cohen, played magnificently by Devin McCardell and Roger Davis, played triumphantly by Hunter Scandrett remind me of Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley, from the band “America” who were at the zenith of their careers in the 80’s during the AIDS epidemic. Hunter Scandrett looks like a young Dewey Bunnell.

 

 

 

 

Gerry Beckley always fascinated me.  He looked too pretty to be a boy. His hair was pretty, his face was pretty, his skin was pretty, his voice sounded like a male, but rather boyish, and his overall appearance was androgynous. When I first saw him, I didn’t know if Gerry was short for Geraldine, if Gerry was transgender, or if Gerry was simply unconventional for the time. I have always felt an overwhelming attraction to this sort of look, not in an erotic way, but in an aesthetic way, as if an artistic masterpiece – the way one is mesmerized and enchanted by looking at a Renoir painting, or seeing my mother in law’s 5 carat diamond, how it sparkled in the sunlight, and knowing one day I would inherit it.

Mark Cohen, played by Devin McCardell has this spectacular, mesmerizing look.  We know from the storyline that Mark was dumped by a lesbian, so I kept asking myself, who is this beautiful actor? Is Mark a male or a female? Or does it even matter?  Mark can sometimes be a name for a female.  Devin is a Celtic / Gaelic unisex name, used by both male and female. Devin McCardell exudes this intoxicating mystique.  I cannot tell whether Devin is a high school kid or an adult.  I cannot tell if Devin is a boy or a girl, or a man or a woman.  Devin sounds a lot like Gerry Beckley, a male voice with a boyish innocence. When the lights went out, I could see Devin’s shadow walk off stage, and Devin walked like a male.  John Sartor is a genius for casting Devin in this role, as Devin is an icon of what that show is all about: Bohemianism and endless possibilities.  If there was anybody who could write their ticket for a future of unlimited possibilities, Devin has won the possibilities lottery. Devin can be anything Devin wants.

When Mimi (Bihanna Martin) first walked on stage, I thought I was seeing the doppelgänger of Donna Summer, another superstar of the 80s. When she sang “Light My Candle” – again, I was reminded of Donna Summer.  I don’t know if Bihanna is even old enough to know who Donna Summer is, but trust me, this is a compliment.

This has to be the most talented cast John Sartor as ever assembled. He can do magic.

Angel Dumott Schunard is described in some synopses as a cross-dresser. I don’t agree with that label. Played beautifully in this production by Chris Joseph, I see Angel as transgender or transexual. Chris performs this role with aplomb.

I have never seen RENT before.  I went to the first few minutes of the show at Broadway in Detroit, then walked out because the speakers were so loud it was painful to be in the same room.  Typically, I avoid any “entertainment” about AIDS.  For me, it is a trigger for PTSD.  My best friend, Paul, died from AIDS.  Like we see in the show, there was a time before Covid when we assembled in large groups in small areas.  I used to go often to a gay bar in my 20’s called “The Glass House.” I met a man there I had a crush on, but in the age of AIDS, one did not dare risk dying, just as we have been ultra-careful during the Covid pandemic.  One time I invited Paul to meet this man I had a crush on, and it turned out he preferred Paul over me, and they began an intimate relationship. That man gave Paul AIDS. It could have been me who died, but it was my best friend instead.  I watched Paul die a slow, agonizing death, and I felt responsible, at least to some extent, for his fate. It has taken years to get over it. But as we have learned with Covid, every person has to be responsible for his own behavior, regardless of which lifestyle he or she or they live.

Bravo to this cast. You have uplifted me.

 

Mark Cohen………….Devin McCardell
Roger Davis…………..Hunter Scandrett
Tom Collins…………….Mike Sandusky
Benjamin Coffin III…………Justin Muse
Joanne Jefferson………..Jayla Fletcher
Angel Dumott Schunard…..Chris Joseph
Mimi Marquez……………..Bihanna Martin
Maureen Johnson………….Becky Turza

Company/ Supporting Roles:
Fiona Godfrey
Spencer Goodman
Chloe Grisa
Sophie Muse
Odera Office
Mike Morton
Carter Salata
Katerina Stanley
Band:

Music Director/ Keys…..Brian E. Buckner
Guitar……………………..Mike Harrington
Drums………………………..Russ Sauter

Production Team

Director …………………………………………………………………… John Sartor
Producer/Assistant Director………………………………Becky Turza
Music Director ………………………………………………Brian E. Buckner
Choreographer …………………………………………………………Chloe Grisa
Stage Manager…………………………………………………….Cindy Franklin
Sound………………………………………………………………………….Val Compau
Lighting……………………………………………………………………….Evan Sartor
Lighting Design………………………………………………………..Don Bascual
Spotlight…………………………………………………………………Zach Farnsworth
Set/Props ………………………………………………John Sartor, Becky Turza

Photos courtesy Evalino Productions:

 

Evalino’s production of Les Miz student edition, sponsored by Brackney Chiropractic Health Centers, opens Thanksgiving weekend. The production will feature 42 young actors under the age of 18. Sartor does not play around when it comes to sets for his casts, as is obvious with his past productions. There will be a full set, projections and his young actors will walk away having learned acting skills and respect for theatre. His professional training and stage experience is quite obvious when speaking with cast members who always look forward to his next production

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Sir Knight, Dr. Anton Anderssen, Lord of Hartforth has been published by USA Today, CBSnewsDetroit, Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, Mensa Bulletin, Broadway World, eTurboNews, Hawaii Tourism Association, HawaiiNews.Online, Michigan Journal, Examiner News and other news outlets. He won the 2009 first prize in journalism from the Detroit Working writers organization, founded 1900 as The Detroit Press Club. He graduated With Highest Distinction from Indiana University (Comparative Literature), earned a Juris Doctor degree (Wayne State University), attended post-doctorate graduate classes in anthropology (University of Michigan), and earned a post-doctorate graduate degree in cultural anthropology (Wayne State University). He is a former concert pianist with Indiana University School of Music and the Detroit Institute of Arts. He is a member of Mensa and several other high IQ organizations including Triple Nine Society, ISPE and The Prometheus Society. He specializes in high culture, and is of Scandinavian, British and Castilian heritage. He was awarded the title of Sir Knight by the Knights of Equity, founded in 1895. He holds the legal title Lord of Hartforth in North Yorkshire, England, and is the direct blood descendant of the first Lord of Hartforth, documented in the Domesday Survey of 1086. He is the direct blood descendant of Plantagenet Kings of England and the Lords Kennedy of Scotland. He lives in Waikiki, Hawaii; Michigan, The Italian Riviera, The Italian Alps, and Milan Italy.