By D. A. Blackburn
In its short history, Who Wants Cake? Theater has given me – and Metro Detroit theatergoers – lots to talk about. In its first two seasons, the company delivered a wealth of sharply funny, innovative and exciting productions. And, with an unusual drive, it also pushed the limits of its performance space, its staff and even its audiences to new heights – generally with exceptional results. If you read this space regularly, you know that praise for the company’s efforts is a fairly common phenomenon, but attending the opening of its third season Saturday gave, even me, a little pause.
“Rent” is, by far, the most ambitious production WWC? has ever tackled. Jonathan Larson’s modern take on Puccini’s quintessential opera “La Boheme” is theater on a monumental scale – with a large cast and a heavy book of vivid, tuneful music.
I’d be lying if I said I felt no trepidation heading into The Ringwald. After all, this is a work with a technical complexity well beyond the average WWC? show, and it’s a company not known for mounting big-budget musicals. I’m pleased to report that my concerns were unfounded. To put it simply, WWC’s “Rent” is a triumph.
There wasn’t an empty seat in the house Saturday night, nor were there any disappointed guests at the curtain call. There were, however, a few unfamiliar sites – a full band, for instance, and lots of new faces on stage. And while these elements are key to the success of “Rent,” direction by WWC? veteran Jamie Richards, as well as sets and costumes by Michelle Becker, keep the show feeling entirely natural in the storefront space.
Music direction by Michael Smith is also a major factor in making this a winning production. His steady hand keeps the band tight, and his influence with the cast is obvious. Though none of the show’s leads were musically flawless Saturday, each and every one shined in critical moments, treating guests to some very inspired singing. And this extends well into the ensemble, which is populated by some of the show’s best vocal talent.
At the forefront, Patrick Kilbourn’s Mark is appealing in every respect. Mark’s music is well within his register, and his acting is a delight. P. J. Vasquez’s Roger is less even vocally, but equally charming.
But it’s the roles of Collins and Angel that WWC?’s casting shines. As Collins, Dez Walker delivers his music with a voice as warm and smooth as fine brandy. Showcasing his talent in the song “Santa Fe,” he made a show-stopper out of a tune that’s normally not one of “Rent’s” most memorable numbers. And his emotional performance surrounding the death of his love, Angel, is superb.
As Angel, Vince Kelley provides an elegant tenor, but it’s his deft work with Jerry Haines’ playful choreography – in heels, no less – and his expressive delivery that earn him my credit as the production’s best performer.
“Rent’s” leading ladies, too, are in fine form. Annie Reinholz’s Maureen and Shondra Tipler’s Joanne are musically great, particularly in the duet “Take Me or Leave Me.” And though Christine Chemello’s Mimi is less pleasing vocally, her characterization is a spot-on, perfect fit.
And as for the familiar “Seasons of Love” the work is so often remembered for; the entire ensemble performs with a poise and musicality that many a touring “Rent” cast could envy.
Though this is not the perfect “Rent,” it is the most satisfying that I’ve seen. And it moves the bar considerably higher for the folks at WWC? To both these ends, I find myself shouting an enthusiastic “Bravo!”
Who Wants Cake Theatre at The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Friday-Monday through Sep. 28. $10-$25. 248-545-5545. http://www.whowantscaketheatre.com