What does it mean to love? What does it mean to lose someone? What does it mean to struggle? What does it mean to be homosexual? What does it mean to live with HIV/AIDS? These are just some of the themes that Rent, the latest production by the Encore Repertory Company, deals with.
Before I offer up my review of Rent, I wanted to take this opportunity to show where Jonathan Larson, the composer of Rent, received much of his inspiration for this ground breaking Broadway musical. A large portion of the inspiration came from an opera called La Bohème. I am a big opera fan, which is why I find this so fascinating.
In 1896 Giacomo Puccini premiered his acclaimed opera La Bohème based on the book Scènes de la vie de Bohème by Henri Murger. It dealt with themes of disease (tuberculosis,) love, heart break and the struggles of young artists. 100 years later, in 1996, also to great acclaim, Jonathon Larson’s Rent, based on La Bohème, opened on Broadway. At its basic form, Rent is a modern retelling of Puccini’s Bohème with only a slight variation on the themes. They deal, of course, with the loves and struggles of young artists but also takes on the issues of homosexuality and HIV/AIDS.
Let’s take a look at some of the similarities between the two musical works. Aside from the themes, the first similarity is they each have a “candle” scene. In Rent it is called “Light My Candle” in La Bohème it is “Chi e la.” It is where the two principle characters first meet and fall in love all because of a candle. Both musical works contain a scene where the character Mimi over hears a conversation that talks of her life running out (“Goodbye Love/Halloween” and “Qui niun ci sente.”) When Mimi dies, the leading tenors both exclaim "MIMI!" Attached are video clips from each musical work so you can experience the scenes for yourself.
Next, Larson directly quotes Puccini’s music. Sporadically, throughout Rent, Larson uses the main theme that Puccini composed for his character Musetta, who in act II of La Bohème sings “Quando men vo” also known as Musetta’s Waltz. Finally, a comparison to be made is the characters themselves:
La Bohème:Mimi, seamstress with Tuberculosis; Rodolfo, poet; Marcello, painter; Musetta, singer; Schaunard, musician; Colline, philosopher; Alcindoro, state councilor; Benoit, landlord
Rent:Mimi Márquez, dancer with HIV; Roger Davis, songwriter-musician with HIV; Mark Cohen, indie filmmaker & Roger’s roommate; Maureen Johnson, bisexual performance artist; Angel Dumott Schunard, gay drag queen percussionist with AIDS; Tom Collins, gay philosophy professor with AIDS; Joanne Jefferson, lesbian lawyer (partly based on Marcello;) Benjamin ‘Benny’ Coffin III, a landlord
Rent opened on Broadway on April 29, 1996 and closed on September 7, 2008 having played 5123 performances making it the 9th longest running show to date in Broadway history. In 1996 it was the winner of four Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Score, six Drama Desk Awards including Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Book, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album, two Theater World Awards, the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Musical, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Drama League Award and three Obie Awards. On July 14, 2011, Rent will be returning to Broadway in its first revival since the original production closed.
When I first saw Rent in the late 1990’s (I was in college at the time,) I did not like it. Maybe it was because of my great love for La Bohème that I could not embrace the new production, but I was part of the minority of people who just did not go for Rent. The funny thing is, Rent is the show I have seen the most, primarily because my friends kept dragging me to see it. I do have to say, that each time I saw it I would get something different out of the show. It slowly began to grow on me.
Whenever I hear that community theater groups are producing difficult shows like Rent, I become nervous. What often happens is you get one or two stand out performers who have the ability and talent to do what is required in the show, while the other performers noticeably struggle with their parts. When I see shows like that it makes for a long evening for me and I feel sorry for the performer. Going into the final dress rehearsal, of this production of Rent, I was quite reluctant. I was expecting exactly what I just described. When the cast was taking their final bows, I suddenly realized that I had never been so moved at the theater as I had just been that evening.
Let me start with the orchestra. It seemed like the actors where performing with the original sound track.
The orchestra consisted of five musicians under the direction of Jeff Kimball. Their playing was top notch and certainly one of the best theater orchestras I have heard.
Meaghan Bruneault was the choreographer. Her choreography complimented and supported each song capturing the spirit of the show. It was also solidly executed by the entire cast.
It would be difficult for me to single out any particular actors so I am not going to. Each actors singing and acting was superb. One of the most amazing things about this production is that there were no standout performers and I do not mean that in a negative way. What I mean is that everyone, from the leads to the ensemble, worked as a single unit not trying to upstage each other. Each actor was committed to the musical work and, more importantly, to telling the story. That is such an important element because it strengthens the production as a whole and brings it to an entirely new level. It was quite obvious how each and every actor loves this show.
When it comes to live theater, I am one who is hard to emotionally move. There were two moments in the show that caused me to shed some tears. The first was when Tom Collins (Michael Harrison) loses his boyfriend Angel, (Antonio Rodrigues) to AIDS. With everyone gathered near Angel’s coffin, Roger (Brandan Duquette) and Maureen (Allison St. Rock) offer short eulogies then Tom sings a powerful reprise of “I’ll Cover You” a duet that the two characters had sung earlier in which the two made their relationship official by committing to each other. The other moment was when Mimi (Amanda Palmer) dies in the arms of Roger (Matthew Royality-Lindman) who sings out Mimi’s name in despair. She then miraculously returns to life surrounded by her friends and they sing a poignant finale with lyrics of:
There is no future
There is no past
Thank God this
Moment’s not the last
There’s only us
There’s only this
Forget regret or
Life is yours to miss
No other road
No other way
No day but today.
Directed by Alfred A Fortier III, this production of Rent is emotional, hopeful and inspirational.
It runs for only 3 performances – Friday May 6 at 7 p.m. and Saturday May 7 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Call the box office at the Stadium Theatre Performing Arts Centre for tickets.
Mimi - Amanda Palmer
Mark - Brendan Duquette
Roger - Matthew Royality-Lindman
Angel - Antonio Rodrigues
Tom Collins - Michael Harrison
Joanne - Hilary Gothberg
Maureen - Allison St. Rock
Benny - Brad Kirton
Ensemble - Kayla Ferrucci
Ensemble - Nicole Franklin
Ensemble - Meaghan Bruneault
Ensemble - Alexandra Fandetti
Ensemble - Keegan Schmidt
Ensemble - Dillon Tognacci
Ensemble - Johnny Vento
Ensemble - John McElroy
Ensemble - Matthew Zanfagna
Ensemble - Andrew Williamson