By Karen Isaacs
Rent has become an iconic musical for a number of reasons. After all it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1996. Second it is roughly based on Puccini’s La Bohème and opened 100 years after the original. Also, it deals with current issues and features rock music and a young cast. But what is always mentioned is a “no one would believe it if it were in a novel” moment – the night before the opening, the composer/lyricist/book writer Jonathan Larson died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm. He never lived to see the acclaim the musical received.
Admittedly, the music of Rent may not be a favorite genre for many of Ivoryton’s older audience, a fact that Artistic Director Jaqueline Hubbard (and director) acknowledged in her opening comments to the audience. She urged them to “give it a chance.” But the show also appeals to younger audiences, and many young people were in the theater the night I saw it. Ivoryton, following the tradition of the Broadway production, has set aside a block of front row tickets that go on sale at 6 p.m. for just $20.
Larson (and his earlier collaborator Billy Aronson) kept the basic outline of the La Bohème story line – struggling artists in an urban environment and their struggles with poverty, illness and artistic success. Puccini’s opera was set in the 1880s and tuberculous was the disease endemic to the poor and the struggling artist.
Rent is set in New York City’s east village (what is sometimes called Alphabet City), where many artists settled in illegal lofts. The medical endemic of that period was AIDS – not only due to homosexual transmission but also due to transmission via drug addiction and shared hypodermic needles.
If you’ve never seen Rent – and I may be one of the few Americans who hasn’t – you may find the first act confusing. We are introduced to so many characters that it is hard to keep them all straight. There’s Mark, a documentary filmmaker, who is sometimes our narrator; his roommate Roger who is a songwriter and HIV positive. Tom Collins (referred to as Collins) is their friend who is an MIT grad and occasionally teaches computer part-time; why he is there is not really clear. Finally there is Benjamin Coffin III, another friend who has, in the minds of his friends, “sold out” – marrying up and now owning the building they all live in.
Within the group are some women; Mimi Marquez is an exotic dancer and also HIV positive. Maureen is Mark’s ex-girlfriend with whom he is still somewhat involved and her new girlfriend Joanne. In addition there is Angel, a transvestite who falls for Collins.
The musical begins on Christmas Eve and concludes the following Christmas. During that time the artists continue to struggle to live and work. AIDS takes its inevitable, at that time, toll on the friends, but there are successes as well.
The first act was confusing, not only because of all the characters but the sound system, the sound design and/or the articulation of the performers made it difficult to understand the lyrics. The lyrics, in a basically sung-through musical, are vitally important to convey plot.
Since it’s opening, it ran on Broadway for 12 years, closing in 2008. A successful movie version was made in 2005. A “high school friendly” version of the show has encountered controversy, but has had hundreds if not thousands of productions.
Several actors give standout performances. Jonny Cortes is terrific as Angel; I will quibble that the name is a little too obviously symbolic. He moves from comedy to sensitivity effortlessly. Tim Russell as Mark gives us a quieter member of the group; he seems more “normal” than many of his friends. Alyssa V. Gomez gives us a flamboyant and vital Mimi – but she is less successful in some of the transitions as Mimi moves from determined to capture Roger to “victim” in her relationship with Collins. Unfortunately she and Johnny Newcomb (Roger) develop little chemistry – you don’t believe their love. Since that is the dramatic climax of the musical (and opera), it leaves less than fulfilled. They are the Mimi and Rodolpho of the original; you should be crying at her death of these star-crossed lovers.
I also thought that Maritz Bostic as Joanne and Patrick Clanton as Collins were excellent.; and Clanton created authentic chemistry with Cortes; you did believe the relationship between Collins and Angel. The ensemble play a variety of roles and are very good.
Director Hubbard has done a very nice job with the show with strong assistance from music director Michael Morris and choreography Todd Underwood. The set by Martin Scott Marchitto gives us a typical artist’s loft and Lisa Bebey gives us a variety of ‘90s bohemian costumes.
Hubbard was right when she asked the older members of the audience to “give the show a chance.” It appeared that very few left at intermission and from the standing ovation at the end, they seemed to have enjoyed it. Perhaps the fact that music is more in the soft rock genre helps. But the cast and story also obviously helped keep them in their seats.
Rent is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton, through Sunday, August 28. For tickets visit ivortyonplayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318.