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New sounds at the old barn: A review of Rent

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The first hints that the times were a-changin' at Theatre Charlotte came a couple of years ago when the season ended with The Full Monty. Until that final flash of light – with perhaps three milliseconds of nudity before the stage went dark – the decadence of Nine or Cabaret was about as far as they'd go at the Queens Road barn. Before I sat down to pen my review, the second weekend had sold out.

Well, they're going even further in the current production of Rent, and I'm not simply referring to the long, lusty mooning performed by one of the leading ladies. Theatre Charlotte had crossed that Rubicon with their production of The Graduate earlier this year. With Jonathan Larson's musical, we are knee-deep in rock 'n' roll and artsy Bohemianism – and mired in the dread atrocities those slippery slopes lead to: drug culture, homosexuality, and AIDS.

But to appreciate how decisively Rent turns the corner at the old barn, we must turn our eyes and ears away from the stage and into the audience where the action and reaction were quite unprecedented. My first inkling was when the usual applause that greets the ending of each musical number was superseded by loud cheering and squealing – the sort of response that's more at home at Ovens Auditorium or the Belk when wildly popular hits like Wicked touch down and fill the house with rabid fans.

Deep into Act 2, with the reprise of "I'll Cover You," the performers themselves experienced a moment of recognition along with the rest of us. Music director Ryan Deal, leading a tight six-piece band from the keyboard, abruptly stopped the music for dramatic effect. So did the entire ensemble onstage – but to their wide-eyed amazement, the better part of the front two rows of the audience kept singing!

No, Toto, we weren't in Gastonia anymore. We were nearer to the Verizon Amphitheater.

All of this youthful enthusiasm could be written off as insanity if this Rent, directed by Billy Ensley, weren't so damn good. In a couple of respects – the consistency of the cast from top to bottom and the intimacy of the old barn – this Queens Road marvel outclasses the two touring versions I've seen. Most of the frontliners aren't familiar names on the local musical scene, indicative of another key element in the Rent synergy: the area's primo talent was drawn to the show and, likely, the opportunity of working with Ensley.

Chaz Pofahl seems to be perpetually busy around town playing comedy protagonists, but this outing as our narrator, existentially disengaged filmmaker Mark Cohen, reminds us that he's a very solid musical performer – and that Ensley has a knack of bringing actors to their peak form. The other fairly prolific member of the ensemble is Karen Christensen, who draws the equally complex role of Mark's ex-girlfriend Maureen Johnson, an egocentric bisexual activist performance artist. If anything, she's even more layered and nuanced than Pofahl. But if she's ready to drop her jeans for the sake of art, shouldn't she be rewarded with a microphone that works?

The lovebirds are the most charismatic I've seen on a local stage in recent memory. Joe McCourt made a fine enough first impression on Queens Road in 2008 as Jesus in Godspell, and it may be sacrilege to imply that he's deeper here as the perpetually adrift singer-composer Roger Davis, but that's how I see his raw handiwork – conflicted, agonized, passionate, and yet cool. Putting McCourt's cool to the ultimate test is Meghan Whitney in a smoldering Charlotte debut as junkie temptress Mimi Marquez. The McCourt-Whitney duet on "Light My Candle" vied with Whitney's alternately wild, alternately stoned "Out Tonight" solo as the evening's highlight. Come to think of it, there was something Christ-like in McCourt's ability to withstand Whitney's droopy-eyed wantonly smiling flirtations.

AIDS martyr Angel Schunard is handled with a funky Latin-flavored delicacy by Charlton Alicea, and in an are-you-kidding-me coup for Metrolina's oldest community theater, Angel's lover-caretaker Tom Collins is done by Calvin Grant, who understudied that role – and landlord Benjamin Coffin III – on Broadway. For our Benny here, we settle for John Horton, who easily homes in on the hipster plutocrat. Rounding out the main players – and completing the bisexual Roger-Maureen triangle – is Meredith Westbrooks Owen with a nicely measured butchiness as Joanne Jefferson.

Since this really isn't Puccini's La Bohème, the opera that inspired Larson, we don't expect Metropolitan Opera splendor in the set design. That's no reason to downgrade the two-storey celebration of grunge that scenic designer Chris Timmon has created for Rent's Bohemian backdrop or the rock concert scaffolding that frames it all. Jamey Varnadore's costumes are spot-on as usual, but they are decisively upstaged by the streaming colors of John Hartness's lighting design. That scaffolding sure doesn't go to waste.

The only cockroach in the ointment is Theatre Charlotte's sound system, which has now leapfrogged CPCC's as the worst theater rig in the city. Bless their hearts, the new generation of Rent fanatics blithely overlooked the dropouts, the feedback, and the distortion. Nights of rocking at Verizon Amphitheater and Time Warner Arena will help you do that, I guess.

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