Rent by Jonathon Larson. Directed by John Saunders. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
(l-r)Paul Wyatt, Hillary Fisher, Laura Helm, Aneesa Folds, Mike Backes, Rasheem Ford, Ryan Thurman; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
". . . 'cause everything is rent."
For the principals and the chorus of the show "Rent" with book, lyrics and music by Jonathon Larson, the world they live in has been torn apart, rent, left flapping in the wind. They live the 1990s equivalent of La Vie Boheme caring little about wars, politics, even art. Their concerns in their condemned East Village squats are strictly personal and personally directed inward more often than outward. Their connections are infrequent and what connections they do make are often flighty and faulty and no sooner do they come together than they are torn apart, rent.
Mark and Roger share a place where the former works on his documentary films and the latter composes songs, or they both try to do that. Mark's former girlfriend Maureen has left him and become a Lesbia, a rich girl's plaything; Roger's former girlfriend has just left him. One cold winter night he meets the prostitute Mimi and tries to help her out, but she steals his stash and leaves him. Their friend Collins is mugged and saved from destruction by a transvestite named Angel who provides them with food and cash, and their landlord Benjamin Coffin III wants to evict them for not paying their rent for a year (they don't intend to pay the current year or the next year's rent either).
If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, try singing the score of Puccini's opera, La Boheme where Mimi and Rudolfo meet and he tries to help her out and Marcello's girlfriend, Musetta has left him for an old person with money. Colline provides food and wine for the crew and so on and so forth. Roger is even working on a song whose melody is a direct steal from Puccini. For this original work of art, Jonathon Larson won three Tony Awards, four Drama Desk Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. Who knew direct copying could warrant such accolades.
Usually I want Mimi to die, like she does in the opera. Her character is a bad combination of Aldonza in "Man of La Mancha" and Bess in "Porgy and Bess." This time around I found myself rooting for her to get straight, get her man and get out of the East Village. As portrayed by Hillary Fisher the current Mimi, on stage at the Mac-Haydn Theater in Chatham, New York, has some rather lovely qualities. There is a person on stage and not a character, a person whose warmth and sensitive nature comes through in small ways over and over. Fisher is also both gorgeous and a gorgeous singer with a large and luscious soprano voice that could use better music to express itself completely.
As her erstwhile lover, Roger, Mike Backes is both arresting and charming all the while being rude and crude and self-deprecating and nasty. His work here is never done and he does it with a fine face and voice and, although he is supposedly ill with AIDS, a body that hasn't yet begun to waste away. His best friend is played with alacrity by Paul Wyatt who makes Mark into more than just a narrator who keeps a distance from the story he's involved in. His emotional charge is best heard in the delicious act one duet "Tango Maureen" in which he shares his angst and his lovelife with his ex's current girlfiend, Joanne.
Joanne is the excellent Aneesa Folds who is an emotional charge for the show. This singing actress brings potency to all of her scenes. When she is alone on stage with Laura Helm, who plays Maureen, the sparks literally fly. Helm is stunningly beautiful and rather a sensual presence and, like her role model Musetta, her Maureen is incapable of being loved without loving back.
Angel and Collins are played by Pierre Marais and Rasheem Ford and the picture they paint of honest love and anguished death are maginificent. It doesn't matter, ultimately, if Angel's passing (which is as overdone and repetitive as can be in the script) takes away from the anticipated death of Mimi. As played by these two actors it is a tribute to their talents and to those of director John Saunders who makes this one of the most memorable moments of the current theatrical season.
It is Saunder's work in this show that separates it from other productions of "Rent" that I've seen. He has found qualities in the characters that usually remain hidden from us. He has developed emotional strokes that transport us into this unpleasant and ugly world safely and bring us safely home again.
The production is lush (if tenement and squat can be lush) and the music is soundly played. The balance on opening night was sometimes difficult but rock musicals can do that now and then. Andrew Gmoser's lighting design was stellar. Assisting Saunders with some simple but effective choreography was Bryan Knowlton.
Among the fine ensemble were two men who gave excellent solo performances: Danny Durr as Paul and David Newman as Mimi's pimp. There were no peformances in this production that were anything less than perfection.
Have you gathered that I don't like "Rent?" I don't. It's a show with too many flaws in it and a score that could be cut by at least a half an hour; it's repetitive and needlessly tuneless. It has two great songs, "Seasons of Love" and "Tango Maureen" and a few other musical moments that may survive the two thousand teens. What makes this production worthwhile is the vision of the director and the talents of his actors. Now my opinions have been rendered - you can tear them apart if you like and see them rent before your eyes.
Rentplays at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 State Route 203 in Chatham, New York through June 28. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292 or go on line at www.machaydntheatre.org.