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‘Rent’ at Palo Alto Players

Palo Alto Players satisfies fans of musical ‘Rent’ in new production

FROM NOW to the end of this summer, just about every community theater company in the greater Bay Area will be littering its stage with trash cans, cyclone fencing and fake punk-rock fliers in order to mount its version of Rent. The local Rent renaissance began back in February, when Stanford’s drama department presented a spirited, if oddly edited, production of the musical, which made its Broadway debut in 1996 and closed in 2008. City Lights in San Jose is doing its version in July. Palo Alto Players takes its turn through May 9. Getting a jump on the competition has apparently drawn some amazing voices to the cast. In particular, Scott Fish as Mark, David Saber as Roger, Nicole Frydman as Maureen and Victoria Morgan as Joanne bring down the house through the sheer power of their singing.

The Palo Alto Players production is strong from beginning to end, but it was the routine act of dimming the house lights that got the legions of “Rentheads” in the audience going. That was their cue to whoop and shout before a single note had been sung. The word, of course, is a play on Deadheads, the term used to describe people who followed the Grateful Dead around in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Like Deadheads, Rentheads are excruciatingly familiar with the object of their affection. Is Mark wearing a striped scarf? Yes. Is he carrying a real Paillard-Bolex 16 mm film camera like Anthony Rapp did in the original? Yes again! Is Angel (Brian Conway) decked out in an over-the-top Christmas-themed drag-queen outfit? Well no, but costume designer, Mary Cravens, had to have some fun.
The detail-oriented audience did not seem to mind this minor transgression against tradition, probably because they got so much from the singers: Fish and Morgan, with help from Saber, are terrific together on “Tango Maureen”; Frydman brings loads of humor and knowing performance-art parody to “Over the Moon”; and Saber and Danelle Medeiros, who plays the junkie-stripper Mimi, have a lovely duet, “I Should Tell You,” in the middle of the Act 1 closer, “La Vie Boheme.”

But it’s the duet between Frydman and Morgan in Act 2, “Take Me or Leave Me,” that took my breath away. In that number, the whole issue of how accepting we are of people who are different from us comes home. But even though Maureen and Joanne are struggling with their volatile relationship, we just know it must all work out in the end—when Frydman’s and Morgan’s beautiful voices come together as one, what other outcome could there possibly be?

Palo Alto Players
Thu-Sat @ 8pm, [email protected]:30pm thru May 9
Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto