Review: Capital District Arts Initiative’s Immersive RENT at Lark Hall

ALBANY – The Capital District Arts Initiative staged a completely immersive version of the rock opera RENT this month at Lark Hall. With some surprises, some more delightful than others, the musical version of Puccini’s “La Boheme” had performers singing throughout the hall, talking up spectators, and even begging for money before the show (Jim gave a child a $1 bill, much to her delight).

The cast dished up one delicious hit after another with shockingly beautiful vocals for a volunteer crew. The standouts were Keenan McCollum, who starred as Roger and whose voice commanded complete attention from wherever you were in the hall. Understudy Vanessa Clay performed the role of Mimi on June 24th when Jim and I dodged raindrops as we ran from the park to the hall, and she powerfully belted out some sexiness in her opening song, “Light My Candle.”

Jim and I had both seen RENT a number of times, and we knew the storyline of impoverished artists living in Alphabet City during the HIV/AIDS crisis. I was still taken aback by the authentic and natural emergence of the love story plot between Angel and Tom Collins, played by Joshua Rivera and Francesco Carlo Archina, respectively. I found their love songs to be some of the most organic to the production.

Adrienne Parker’s performance as Mark’s mom had the crowd laughing almost as intensely as Joshua Rivera’s playful Angel. But the show-stopping moments occurred when everyone sang together and allowed some gospel vibe to come through.

If you didn’t know the story, some of the challenges presented by the immersive technique might’ve disrupted your understanding of the show. Because the actors moved around so much, it was often hard to find them visually; with microphones struggling to maintain sound, some of the vocals and spoken lines were dropped, leaving viewers to recall the finer points of the play.

Overall, the immersion worked other than those small points. The strength of the vocals and joy of the actors carried the crowd with them on the joyride through questioning capitalism, the meaning of love, and the harrowing truths of addiction.

Lark Hall is a perfect host for such a production, offering flexible seating, great lighting, and the openness of space for creativity to blossom. We have attended many concerts at the Hall, which pulled off the theatrical energy needed for such an endeavor.

RENT is the only production thus far by this emerging group. We are waiting to see what they have to dish up next for Nippertown theatergoers – and predict this group will serve up the spice as they grow legs in the theatre scene. Bravo!

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