Peoria Players closed its season with an excellent production of the rock musical “Rent” directed by Deric Kimler. The late composer and lyricist, Jonathan Larson, adapted Puccini’s popular opera “La Boheme” into the 1990s avant-garde scene on Manhattan’s Lower East Side known as Alphabet City because the avenues are lettered from “A” through “D.”  It is an out of the way neighborhood without easy subway access and because of that the rents were cheap and therefore a popular place for struggling artists. Actors or musicians would walk in the middle of the street to avoid junkies lurking in doorways or alleys; street crime was rampant. In Larson’s tale, heroine and HIV/AIDS have replaced the tuberculosis and absinthe of Puccini’s Montmartre bohemians of a century before. When the play opened on Broadway in 1996 it won the TONY, Pulitzer and Drama Desk Awards.

Mr. Kimler cast a talented ensemble, and Jimmy LaHood gathered an equally talented group of musicians. The overall effect was very satisfying for the nearly sold-out, enthusiastic audience. The gritty urban unit set worked well, and the show ran seamlessly with good pacing. No designer was listed for the set in the program. Nyk Sutter provided choreography that was perfect in that it did not call attention to itself but was naturally integrated into the action of the show. The lighting was by Wayne Carey and was the most evocative light plot I have seen in the past several years. Conversations during intermission all agreed that the sound mix was off; we could all hear, we just could not understand the lyrics.

Jay R de Leon as Angel, the transvestite, was simply stunning. Drag is never a drag when Angel is on the stage. Her presence lifted each scene with energy, buoyancy and loving compassion. Her entrance in a perky Santa outfit would probably drive the Texas Attorney General positively apoplectic. Bree Carroll as the lesbian performance artist Maureen was magnificent. She has a big voice and real comic ability in a generally angry character. Her rendition of “Over The Moon” was a show stopper. Pauline Parkhurst as the tragic exotic dancer Mimi was brilliant both in acting and singing. She brought depth and soul to her role and, unlike Puccini’s version, she is spared at the end. In that regard, Larson’s vision is more forgiving of the “fallen woman” than Puccini, and Mimi will get a second chance after she accepts true love.

Cornstock opened its summer season with the ’70s-era musical “Sugar” based on the 1959 movie “Some Like It Hot.” Two Chicago musicians are present at a gangland murder and on the lamb disguised as women in an all girl band. Director Mike Reams gathered a great cast of veteran actors including: Chip Joyce, Jarrod Hazard, Aaron Elwell, Bill Ciardini, Dan and Tamra Challacombe and newcomer Jes King in the title role of Sugar Kane. Mrs. King played the role with just the right touch of originality and at the same time reminiscent of classic “dumb blonde” made famous by Marilyn Monroe in the movie.

These two shows serve as bookends on how we have come to regard gender politics, one is a classic musical screwball comedy where cross-dressing is used as a comic device and the other uses a transvestite to make a strong statement about the human condition. I saw “Rent” the night before the Orlando massacre and so all kinds of emotions are affected. Shakespeare also used cross-dressing as a plot device and the Illinois Shakespeare Festival will present one of his most successful comedies, “Twelfth Night” which will open July 5 at the Ewing Manor in Bloomington. Shipwrecked in a strange land, Viola disguises herself in her brother’s clothing for greater social mobility and enters into service at the court of the lovesick Orsino. Women actors were forbidden by law in Elizabethan England so all women’s roles were played by boys. The result in “Twelfth Night” is a boy, playing a woman disguised as a boy. It is a delicious romantic comedy with just a touch of pathos for balance. The festival will also present “Hamlet” opening July 7 but this time played by an actress in the title role. I look forward to seeing how that twist works. As Hamlet says, “What a piece of work is man.”

Doug Day

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