Stratford Festival 2023/Rent, book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, directed by Thom Allison, musical direction by Franklin Brasz, choreography by Marc Kimelman, Festival Theatre, Apr. 8 to Oct. 28. Tickets here.
First of all, full disclosure. I have now seen Jonathan Larson’s rock musical Rent three times, and while this might be heresy, I am not a fan. For the first 15 minutes of the Stratford production, though, I thought there might be a breakthrough.
I was genuinely enjoying Robert Markus’ recounting the backgrounds of both his character, filmmaker Mark Cohen, and that of Mark’s roommate Roger Davis, a wannabe rock musician, performed by Gabriel Antonacci. And then Mimi (Andrea Macasaet) arrived and it all went south.
The sad story behind Rent is well known.
Jonathan Larson based his musical on Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème, setting his Bohemians among the starving artists of New York City’s East Village. The show premiered in 1996 to great acclaim, but, tragically, Larson suddenly passed away of an aortic aneurysm the night before Rent’s first off-Broadway preview. He was just 35 years old.
As well as the up and down fortunes of the impoverished Bohemians, Larson included HIV/AIDS, race issues, homophobia, homelessness, drug addiction and police brutality, among other crises of the day. The musical certainly has relevance for the now, yet it doesn’t pass the test of time.
One of the problems is the structure of Rent itself. It just doesn’t hang together.
Take for example the death of drag queen Angel (Nester Lozano, Jr.) which shatters the Bohemians. Yet, we never get to see her close relationships with the friends who are devastated by her death. In fact, her death seems to spring out of nowhere.
I know that the original La Bohème novel by French writer Henri Murger was episodic by nature. In fact, the actual title was Scenes of Bohemian Life (1851). In Rent, however, the scenes seem to jump around for no rhyme or reason. Sometimes the characters break into song without the audience grasping the reason why.
The Bohemians are also one-trick ponies. In fact, Larson’s characters are so underdeveloped that we can’t even find sympathy for them in their plight.
There is the great song that Roger wants to write for his legacy, but Your Eyes is simply not memorable.
Larson’s soft rock music, despite the hit Seasons of Love and Franklin Brasz’s lively conducting, does sound alarmingly the same, while the rapid fire singspiel dialogue between the songs is very bland in its up and down cadence.
In other words, some of the fault of Rent lies with the show itself. On the other hand, the cast is very uneven, with the men faring best.
Markus is simply wonderful as Mark in both his delivery of text and song. His restrained belting is a relief from the howling of his fellows. His performance is engagingly naturalistic, and, in fact, the only one that is. If the whole cast had been like Markus’ believable portrayal, it would have been a better show all round..
Gabriel Antonacci as Roger is a good actor, but is much too loud when he sings out. Ditto Lozano as Angel, who also has poor diction. Jahlen Barnes as landlord Benny has clear diction, but needs to be more commanding, while Lee Siegel gives a strong performance as a very sympatico Tom Collins, the rogue professor and Angel’s love interest.
When it comes to muddled diction, the women are huge offenders. Macasaet as Mimi has such a mannered way of singing that she actually loses words because she plays with her vowels in irritating fashion. Erica Peck as performance artist Maureen and Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane as lawyer Joanne give spirited performances, but you have to strain to hear their words.
The production values are strong, however, including Brandon Kleiman’s tenement scaffold set and Ming Wong’s period costumes. There is also effective lighting from Michael Walton and atmospheric projections from Corwin Ferguson. The giant quilt that falls to the stage at the finale is a marvelous coup de théâtre.
Director Thom Allison has mandated a very energetic stage picture, with his actors literally running up, down and all around the town. I did like how he deftly incorporates the ensemble members into the action by patterning them on the stage when they are choral or backup singing. Allison is also good about moving his characters into scenes from various exits and entrances. Alas, Marc Kimelman’s choreography is lacklustre.
In an overall view of Rent, the singing is ear-shattering canbelto, diction is poor, there is little sense of personality, and the scenes are a jumble.
Alas, this production of Rent is not the one that is going to endear me to this musical.
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