Saturday, October 18, 2008

Le Petit's two grand hits

It is not unusual for a playhouse to have a production treading its boards. It is expected. What is unusual is when a playhouse has two or more venues to allow simultaneous mountings of different shows. If, in the course of mounting these two shows, one of them is a hit, that is also expected. Everyone can be proud that, apart from the artistic triumph, the public was affected by it and provided an economic return to the theatre. But when both of these simultaneous productions find artistic merit in the theatre community and runaway success at the box office, it is highly unusual and a moment to be savored by the playhouse. That is exactly what is happening for the next several weeks as Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre mounts two highly anticipated and wildly successful productions of "Rent" and "Assassins." Both are ensemble shows, but the comparison stops there. "Rent," the voice of the millennial generation by the late James Larson, is an in-your-face loud, raucous roaming commentary on relationships, AIDS, poverty and the need for community. Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins" is a little-known, highly controversial work about those that successfully slew or attempted to slay standing presidents of the U.S. "Rent" engages our sensibilities about love, disease and capitalism, while "Assassins" makes us cringe at the demented figures who tried to justify the ultimate removal of office by a member of the electorate. The community in "Rent" is engaging and, despite their lot in life, proud of who they are. The ragtag group of misfits in "Assassins," from John Wilkes Booth to James Guiteau to Leon Czogolsz to Lee Harvey Oswald is pitiful. Yet, we are drawn to them despite the horror of their actions. It is not unlike watching a train wreck. We are repulsed, but cannot turn away. Sondheim's music is at his very best here and the cast does well to bring texture to the different layers the composer brought into the score. "Seasons of Love," which opens, continues and closes the second act of "Rent" has become an anthem for Gen-Xers and others. "Assassins" has its most compelling song in "Another National Anthem," where all the major characters are on stage complaining about why they did what they did and their misguided justifications for their actions. The young cast of "Rent" is terrific with very few "big name" local stars, while "Assassins" boasts New Orleans's own Ricky Graham, Gary Rucker, Jimmy Murphy, and Vatican Lokey in key roles of Guiteau, Oswald, Booth and the Proprietor, respectively. Suffice it to say that the two are both very different, yet both excellent in their own right. Artistic Director Sonny Borey is to be congratulated for dual successes on twin stages and a testament to the powerful recovery being felt in the New Orleans theatre community. Break a leg, fellas. Uh, Mr. Booth, especially in your case!

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