Here’s a musical of, by and (originally) for young “creatives” dying young, con brio.
Its author/composer, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly in 1996 at age 35, just days before Rent previewed.Of the show’s six co-starring roles, four are already doomed in the then-rampant AIDS pandemic as the action begins; one of them proceeds to die onstage.
Larson recruited his initial cast and crew, as well as his material, from the Off-Off-Way-Off Broadway world he knew in New York’s Lower East Side “Alphabet City.” Early audiences, too, drew upon the same bohemian demi-monde throughout the show’s long workshopping gestation.
But then, innovatively staged by its original director, Mark Grief, Rent went on to a record-breaking Broadway run and multiple Tony Awards. It won a posthumous Pulitzer for Larson, a movie version and countless revivals, professional and amateur.
The once-edgy rock opera has become a nostalgic staple for the sort of once-edgy Gen Xers who can now afford the three-figure price of a Broadway Across Canada (BAC) season subscription. It has acquired such cult status that much of the 3,000-strong Vancouver audience at BAC’s roadshow rendition seemed to already know the script by heart.
Good thing, too, because otherwise the show would be almost indecipherable. It’s not a musical, as such; more of a full-on “sing-through” opera, with no spoken dialogue to unfold the plot. And a rock opera, at that; not soft pop, but real rock, vintage 1990’s with retro 1970’s touches. So it’s hard (for these old ears) to catch the lyrics on the fly amidst all the thump and wail of the five-member onstage instrumental ensemble.
Not that there’s much of a story line to pick up on, anyway, at least not in the pedestrian sense of a beginning-middle-and-end. Rather a constantly shifting matrix of six main characters who pair off, fight, mourn, celebrate, split-up and reconcile in various permutations and combinations for nearly three hours (two Acts, with intermission). So many intertwined subplots that the playbill even includes a kind of flowchart diagram of who’s doing what to whom. Useful, but far from comprehensive.
The action is vaguely modeled on Puccini’s La Bohème, which might help orient classical opera fans. But, then, Puccini’s masterpiece is itself pretty non-linear, deriving from an Henri Murger source text that was not so much a novel as a social anthropology of Belle Époque Parisian bohemia.
Rent transposes this milieu from the 1890’s Montparnasse to 1990’s Alphabet City. For the shadow of “consumption” (i.e. TB), Larson substitutes the twin spectres of AIDS and drug addiction. These trade-offs make Rent feel far grittier than La Bohème, but at the same time less doomy and more hopeful.
So we see the pallid poet Rudolfo transformed into HIV-positive crooner Roger (Coleman Cummings in the BAC production) hell-bent to write “One Great Song” before he dies. And his painterly roommate/best bro becomes Mark, a documentary cineaste (Cody Jenkins), who’s as close as this show comes to a narrator.
Mark’s ex, Ivy League performance artist Maureen (Kelsee Sweigard), is a canny update of Puccini’s gigolette Musetta. She’s moved on to a stormy lesbian liaison, but still keeps Mark on the chain in a nerdy/neurotic tango number that’s Rent’s wry take on the iconic La Bohème waltz theme.
Larson’s Mimi is no wilting, mousy, consumptive little seamstress, à la Puccini; rather he turns Roger’s inamorata into an incandescent S&M pole dancer (Aiyana Smash) determined to blaze her brightest before AIDS and dope shut out her lights.
Perhaps the most striking transmogrification is the character of Puccini’s street busker Shunard, who becomes the drag queen Angel (Joshua Tavares). He practically steals the show in Act One with a string of flamboyantly spirited costume dances and then grips us with a white-clad pieta scene in a hospital AIDS ward. He dies in the arms of his boyfriend, philosophy prof Tom Collins (Shariq Hicks), who anchors many of the complex rock harmonies with his sturdy baritone.
All these performers are up-and-coming pro’s, with BFA’s or MFA’s, seasoned on stage and screen and even cruise ship shows – a far cry from the Alphabet City street recruits of Grief’s original production. Director Evan Ensign has skilfully adapted the Grief staging for the roadshow, and chorographer Marlies Yearby deploys her 20-member cast hyperkinetically all over Paul Clay’s sprawling set.
So energetically, in fact, that you come away from the theatre a little wrung out, what with the unremitting backbeat, the crazy clockwork of flying bodies and the talus slopes of street-strewn junk piled up on the tottering angle-iron scaffolding of the stage set. The eye can barely take in all the dizzying detail – sagging furniture, tattered posters, eviscerated appliances, wires and amps, whole middens of bike parts – hardly any of which figure in the onstage action, flagrantly flouting the parsimonious principle of “Chekhov’s gun.”
But that’s how we were – weren’t we? – back in our Bohemian salad days. A joy to revisit that Époque, for a few hours at least, from the comfort of a QE armchair.,