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Arts & Culture

Live Active Cultures: Orlando performing artists survival guide

A new local production of “Rent” elicits a new installment of Seth’s suggestions for performers

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The best and worst part about this gig is getting to write about brand-new artists. Best, because every drama critic dreams of discovering the “next big thing,” or at least lending crucial encouragement to an emerging talent. Worst, because many creatives (present company included) crash in their early efforts before finding their footing, and it can be difficult balancing a reviewer’s responsibility to paying customers against a personal preference not to piss on yet-unrealized potential. Sometimes, as in the case of Clandestine Arts’ debut production of Rent (at Orlando Shakes through Aug. 18), it can be a bit of both.

After seeing Jonathan Larson’s rock musical nearly a dozen times since its 1996 Broadway premiere (including the national tour and GOAT versions I’ve reviewed) it’s hard finding fresh surprises in it, but Clandestine starts on the right foot with solid casting. I appreciated that the three leads made efforts not to strictly mimic their famous forebears: Aaron VanderYacht’s Mark drops the character’s signature scarf and neurotic tics, retaining his nebbishy niceness; Tony Flaherty’s Roger is less anarchic rocker than emo moper, but can belt when required; and Gabriella Whiting is sexy and strong-voiced as Mimi (if not quite skanky enough for a teenage junkie stripper), but I feared for her every step in suicidally high heels on the impressive but unstable multilevel set.

Even better are the supporting same-sex couples. Lindsay Lavin nails Maureen’s absurdist “Over the Moon” protest piece, and meets her comic timing match in Elaina Walton’s Joanne. Kristen-Alexander Griffith (Angel) and Devon Settles Jr. (Tom Collins) are both veterans of the national tour, and their professional experience shows; Settles in particular is a dead ringer in form and voice for role originator Jesse L. Martin. Acknowledgment is also due to Actors’ Equity members Jarvis Derrell and Injoy Fountain, “Seasons of Love” soloists who blend beautifully with an enormous ensemble largely composed of college students and theme park performers.

Rent’s production, direction, design and co-choreography are all credited to recent transplant Derek Critzer. I applaud the 22-year-old’s ambition and exuberance, but his show displays signs of overextension. The shallow Goldman stage is frequently overwhelmed by the 24-member cast, with sluggish transitions and odd lighting cues compounding the congestion. And staging innovations like a strangely static “Contact” and inappropriate interpretive dance during “Will I?” serve to neuter the script’s raw sensuality and gloss over grittier moments.

Still, such first-timer flaws will likely be forgiven by local Rentheads, who should find this production as satisfying as any of the half-dozen that have been mounted here in the last few years. I’m looking forward to Clandestine Arts’ sophomore offering, assuming they can improve on the polish, but I’d hoped for their sake to see more than an almost-half-full theater on Saturday night of their opening weekend.

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