Fort Worth — Before there was Hamilton, there was Rent. This rock opera, loosely based on Puccini’s La bohème, surged into the spotlight in 1996, gathering Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and a legion of obsessed fans. It’s no mean feat to tackle a show that’s beloved by many in the year of its 20th anniversary, but Casa Mañana’s production, directed and choreographed by Tim Bennett, delivers laughs, heart, and an overall fantastic cast performance that can stand up against past Broadway tours.
The production opens strong with Noah Putterman in the role of Mark Cohen. Putterman plays it just right, less manic than most and without too much action or embellishment that might take away from the accuracy or clarity of his vocals. But he’s not too buttoned-up, either. It’s clear that he’s having a blast during songs like “Tango: Maureen” and “What You Own,” and that makes him a lot of fun to watch.
Putterman is a good foil for John Arthur Greene’s showy, angsty Roger Davis, who seems to need a Xanax in addition to his AZT. Greene has a big Broadway voice and the pedigree to match, but it gets lost in the hair-raking, fist-pumping gestures that make up his character’s limited emotional range. He’s best when he leaves all the emoting behind and just sings—his rendition of “Your Eyes” is beautiful and heartfelt.
Kalyn West makes a beautiful but slightly inconsistent Mimi, lacking in some of the fire that the role requires. Perhaps that is because it is being channeled into her connection with Greene, which has some nice sizzle. Their songs together are passionate if a little uneven. West does an impressive job with the difficult physicality of Mimi’s role, slinking across the catwalk, fearlessly climbing the set, and even sliding down the fireman’s pole without losing a breath or a beat.
Phyre Hawkins’ Joanne Jefferson is funny, sassy, and subtle, a great bit of casting that works especially well in her scenes with Putterman. Her voice is flexible and big—check that high note at the end of “Seasons of Love.” But with Mackenzie Bell as Maureen, however, it sometimes feels like she’s being outshouted. Maureen is a unique soul, but at times Bell needs to take it down a notch. She’s got a great voice, but no dynamics to speak of.
Maurice Verrett Johnson’s booming bass voice is enough to make your seat rattle when he sings as Tom Collins, with a depth and resonance that is warm and velvety. It makes for a good blend with Tyler Hardwick as Angel and his lighter, brighter voice. They are a believably sweet couple, which is ultimately the linchpin of any production of Rent. Collins and Angel may not be the top-billed characters in the playbill, but they’re the heart of the show and Johnson and Hardwick do them justice.
Calvin Scott Roberts infuses bad guy Benny with a nice amount of humanity and heart, where he can sometimes be reduced to more of a caricature. That makes the broken friendship between Benny, Roger, and Mark feel more real and present, and adds sense to the fact that he's still hanging around the fringes even when he’s persona non grata.
The ensemble is extremely strong, which strengthens and elevates the entire production. They show off tight harmonies, strong voices, and seem to have the genuine camaraderie that is necessary to sell Rent on stage. Every cast member has a standout moment throughout the show, but Monique Abry and Katelyn Helene Johnson both have particularly great moments as Mark’s Mom and Alexi Darling, and Winston Daniels and Stefanie Tovar nail their solos at the beginning of Act Two.
There were a handful of issues plaguing the Sunday afternoon show that could cause a longtime fan to give this otherwise extremely well-done production a bit of side-eye if they continue during the run. The cast seemed to be out of sync with the orchestra, though it was unclear as to what exactly contributed to the sloppy entrances and uneven tempos that plagued a handful of songs. Other actors missed cues and even forgot lyrics. Even a group this talented can’t quite overcome basic errors like that, but every show has an off day. Perhaps the Sunday matinee was the mulligan for this cast.
Despite any mistakes or problems, the energy and heart of this production cannot be denied. The cast captures the spirit of the show and treats the serious themes with gravitas and genuine emotion. For longtime Rentheads or first-time fans, Casa Mañana’s Rent is a solid bet.