Rent, book, lyrics and music by Jonathan Larson, original concept and additional lyrics by Billy Aronson, musical arrangements by Steve Skinner, additional arrangements by Tim Weil. Directed and choreographed by Bill Castellino.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Jordan Barbour, Kristoffer Cusick and Rona Figueroa; photo provided by the Weston Playhouse
"I donít own emotions; I rent."
In Pucciniís opera, "La Boheme," a group of friends, all artists of one kind or another, drink a toast to friendship on Christmas Eve while making a fool of their landlord. Later in the evening, two women come into their lives, Mimi and Musetta. Itís nice. Itís romantic. Itís a picture, actually, of life as we believe in our romantic hearts it once used to be for the young in a big city that imposes its corrupt values on the optimism of youth. Jonathan Larsonís rock opera "Rent" takes that same team of friends and lovers, that same youthful optimism and romantic sensibilities and crushes it all under the heel of modern realism. No matter how hard the heel grinds those ingredients in the rotten cement and plasterboard of the East Village and no matter how many layers of grime, grit and nickle bags of coke are tossed on top of the mixture, romance still wins the day, this time on the stage of the Weston Playhouse in Vermont.
Not that I approve of this transition, but this La Boheme for our times has some interesting values. Mimi is still a prostitute and she still has a deadly illness, AIDS instead of consumption. HIV and AIDS is prevalent in the piece with Roger Davis, the Rudolpho, Angel Schunard (Schaunard), Tom Collins (Colline) all suffering from some stage of the illness in this 1992 setting. Rogerís girlfriend April has already killed herself rather than submit to the long terminal stages of her illness. Most of the company are squatters in an East 11th street industrial loft building owned by Benny Coffin (Benoit) although Mark Cohen (Marcello) has an ex-girlfriend Maureen (Musetta) who has moved uptown and become a Lesbian. Oh, Angel and Tom are gay and lovers, so just about every prototype of the modern-day Bohemian is represented in the show. No one need feel left out.
My slightly cynical tone here mirrors the cynicism of the work. "Rent" for all its awards and its twelve year Broadway run is a cynical and dark play with mostly non-memorable music here played extremely well by a very good rock band including Greg Brown on keyboards, Jacob W. Partori on keyboard, Brad Carbone on percussion and Tim Minoudis playing guitar. The singing was mostly fine, although through an unreasonable set of miking mistakes the principals often could barely be heard when their mikes were not turned on to pick up their solo lines. Technical accidents happen and hopefully that wonít be repeated; I hope the stage manager took lots of notes.
While the cast is attractive the types selected by Alan Filderman who cast the show in New York match the original stage company as closely as possible thereby preventing anything new and interesting from happening in that quarter. For the most part the choices pay off in a replicating way and the talents seem to be justifying the choices.
Leo Ash Evens plays Mark. He is a good actor, but not one who moves you with Markís sentimental nature in telling the story. His singing voice is okay and when he gets down into the song, as he does with "What You Own" in the second act he is very, very good. The Weston Roger is Kristoffer Cusick, a lump of a man whose spikey hair tells you as much about the character as the script. Cusick plays despair and anger well but misses a few rungs of the ladder on the way to sentimental and loving. There is always a bit too much of the former pair in his playing the latter. Even so, he has some superb moments although Rogerís need to write something beautiful and perfect before he dies of AIDS always leads him to strains of Pucciniís "Musettaís Waltz," a running gag that finally gets blown when Mark accuses him of doing just that. A joke, I assume, but one that fails the authorís intention to inject humor into another dark moment.
Maureen is played with gusto and a strong sense of personality by Christina Bianco. She is the mean half of either team she plays on, and she bounces back and forth a lot in this show. When she finally gives herself up to the girlfriend, who can do the most for her, it is with a beautiful confluence of condescension and relief. Her vis-a-vis, Joanne, is wonderfully portrayed by Stacey Sergeant. When she and Evens duet on the song ĎTango: Maureen" it is one of the highlights of the first act.
Mimi is played as well as Iíve ever seen the role played by Rona Figueroa. It is a crime that Larson and partners wrote her death scene in such a way as to make it unsympathetic no matter how good the actress and Figueroa is pretty darn good. "Light My Candle" in her hands, voice and body, is about as sensual a song as it ever could be.
Jordan Barbour and Jeremy Leiner are the gay lovers Tom and Angel. Having combined the forces of these two secondary characters in the Puccini opera, they now almost take the story away from the other two and a half (if you count Mark) couples. In fact Angelís death gets the sympathy vote hands down and in Leiner and Barbourís playing of it and its aftermath there is true pathos on the stage for a while. Angel isnít just gay, by the way; he is a cross-dresser. Leiner, with height heightened by incredible shoes, makes this aspect of the show work, not as comic relief but as cosmic belief. His Angel is who he is and we grasp this immediately. Itís a beautifully played part.
Paul Rawlings, of the ensemble, sings wonderfully in the solo sections of the chorus number "Will I?" as do Charlie Parker and C. Mingo Long later in the show. The company, in fact, is so good, I wish them a better show in which to perform. Their passionate singing and acting deserves better writing - even if this show did win the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award the book is mis-wrought, the lyrics are banal and the music is only partially credible.
On a wonderfully wrought but now highly traditional styled set by Timothy R. Mackabee, who has brought nothing original to his design, director Bill Castellino has choreographed his company into, out of and around scenes with finesse. Kirche Leigh Zelle has provided excellent costumes. Jack Mehlerís lighting design works for every moment of the long show - it runs two and a half hours.
I like to think that people can make up their own minds and the performance I saw did get a standing ovation from 99 percent of the audience, although they didnít exactly leap to their feet cheering. I thought the accolade was more for endurance and talent than for the show itself. You have to make up your own minds, as Rogerís girlfriend April did, he tells us, "before slitting her wrists in the bathtub."
Rent plays at the Weston Playhouse, located on the Village Green on Route 100 in Weston, Vermont, through August 22. Ticket prices start at $36. For complete scheduled and tickets contact the box office at 802-824-5288 or look them up on line at www.westonplayhouse.org.