It has taken four years for Jonathan Larson's vibrant small-scale musical to make its way to California, but the timing of its arrival could hardly be more perfect. Even as the film adaptation of Larson's Rent opens in cinemas, the Rubicon Theatre Company is presenting the West Coast premiere of this autobiographical show, which the composer set aside when producers took an interest in his rock-flavored adaptation of La Bohème. Larson conceived the piece as a musical monologue and performed it several times as a work-in-progress before his sudden death in 1996. Five years later, director Scott Schwartz and playwright David Auburn (Proof) reshaped it into a three-person show, which had successful runs Off-Broadway and, just this summer, in London.
The Rubicon production, also directed by Schwartz, provides further evidence of Larson's remarkable talent. Telling his own story--that of an aspiring Broadway songwriter who begins to doubt himself as his 30th birthday approaches--the composer created an enjoyably eclectic and heartfelt score. The dozen or so songs connect with the audience in an immediate way, as they sensitively address universal concerns about growing older, making one's mark in the world, and deciding when to compromise.
In the central role of Jonathan, Andrew Samonsky gives a virtuosic performance, combining expressive singing with a winning personality. In the wrong hands, the character could come across as self-centered and annoying, but Samonsky endears us to him. His Jonathan is blessed with too much self-awareness and too strong a sense of humor to ever become to full of himself. Wilson Cruz, as his best friend Michael, and Natascia Diaz, as his girlfriend Susan, are accomplished performers but a bit tentative. Their best moments occur when they play a series of smaller roles, such as Diaz's hilarious portrait of a high-strung corporate executive. David Farley's brick-and-graffiti set nicely evokes New York's Soho, pre-gentrification.
Presented by and at the Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. Wed. 2 & 7 p.m., Thu.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Nov. 19-Dec. 18. (805) 667-2900.