Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning musical “Rent” is a show that looks to be better than the sum of its parts, a show that SEEMS great, but that actually doesn’t have much substance to it.
It’s an odd dichotomy. As I walked out of the Capitol Theatre, where the show is playing through Dec. 6, I had the impression that the show had been really good. Most of the rock ‘n’ roll score had been catchy and lively, the lighting and stage presentation were terrific, the singing was almost all top-notch, and there were some genuinely engrossing moments.
But as I reflected more and more on the play — and the current condition of I-15 afforded me plenty of time to do that — I realized it has serious flaws. The characterization is rushed, and the second act covers a year’s worth of time, forcing us to simply take the play’s word for it that various people have fallen in love, for example, rather than actually showing it to us. The result is that when people die, we frankly haven’t been involved enough to really care very much. Some of the songs have potential for great emotional effect; there just needs to be more leading up to them to get us in the right frame of mind, rather than saying, “These two are in love; we want you to feel sad now that one of them is dead.”
Then there’s the matter of the lead character, Roger (Christian Anderson). He’s a musician, and unfortunately, so is the actor who plays him. Anderson doesn’t act so much as he struts around like a rock star. He has one of those tough-guy rock-star voices, comparable to Michael Bolton’s, and his facial expressions and physical gestures give the impression that he looks at the show as one big concert. As he sings “One Song Glory,” in which he expresses his desire to write one great song before he dies of AIDS, a light from below casts a huge shadow of him on the back wall. It’s a nifty effect — too bad Anderson doesn’t put anything more than generic rock ‘n’ roll ballad-type intensity-passing-for-emotion into it. That’s all he ever puts into anything, including the scene where he finally sings his “one great song.”
We should also address the message of the play. It’s a retelling of the famous opera “La Boheme,” updated for the ’90s. So instead of a painter dying of tuberculosis, we have a dancer dying of AIDS. In fact, we have several people dying of AIDS. In this play, nearly everyone is gay, and nearly everyone has AIDS, though only a couple people fall into both categories.
What everyone DOESN’T have is a job, or a future, or much direction. These are “bohemians”: artists, slackers, Generation Xers, whatever you want to call them. Roger the musician and his roommate Mark the filmmaker (Trey Ellett) live in a New York apartment with no heat and only occasional electricity. They are surrounded by their fellow bohemians, including gay teacher Tom (Dwayne Clark) and his boyfriend/girlfriend, the cross-dressing Angel (Shaun Earl) — both of whom have AIDS. (I am not being snotty when I call him a “boyfriend/girlfriend” — the characters in the show are often unsure which gender to refer to him as, too.)
There’s also Mark’s ex-girlfriend, the performance artist Maureen (Erin Keaney), who recently dumped Mark and took up a life of lesbianism with Joanne (Kamilah Martin). But they’re all friends, despite their differences, and the whole thing is like a depressing “Seinfeld” where everyone is Kramer.
The ultimate message of the show is a good one, as expressed in the lyrics: “No day but today”; “Forget regret, or life is yours to miss.” In other words: Don’t dwell on the past. Don’t worry about the future. Enjoy life now. Make the most of it. A reasonably good philosophy, as far as it goes.
But as with so much of late-’90s youth culture (and bear in mind I’m a member of the same generation portrayed here), the message is also one of hedonism and self-gratification. There is little in the way of responsibilty or morality. The characters expect us to sympathize with them because of their plights, but as far as we can tell, they are largely responsible for their own plights. The ones without jobs (i.e., Mark and Roger) seem unwilling to do anything other than their art; Mimi (Karen Olivo), who has AIDS, natch, is a drug addict. There are several instances of sexual unfaithfulness. We can feel bad for them for being so screwed up, but one can’t help but realize they brought most of it on themselves. If there’s more at play here — their childhoods, or other extenuating circumstances — the show does nothing to convey that, allowing us instead to assume they at one time had the chance to behave responsibly and merely chose not to.
The sole exception to all this is Mark the filmmaker. Trey Ellett’s performance in that role is the saving grace of the production. Mark comes across as intelligent and fairly ambitious. He was not to blame in being dumped by Maureen, and he has a sensitive soul that inspires genuine sympathy from the audience. In the second act, as he sings about being left alone, wondering why everything has happened the way it has, we feel true emotion for him. He is a victim of fate, a good person caught up into a sad existence. The play wants us to think of everyone that way, but only Mark actually is.
In the end, “Rent” is entertaining and raucous, an anarchic romp with people the likes of which few us have any connection with. Unfortunately, due to some mediocre performing and a script that is under-written in the way of character development, they’re people we continue to have no connection with. The potential is there, but this production, at least, doesn’t live up to it.
My suspicions about this particular production were confirmed when I bought the soundtrack CDs. The original Broadway cast performs on them, and there's a definite difference in quality and emotion. Much of the characterization is still rushed -- that's inherent in the script -- but there's a lot more real passion, especially from Roger, who was bland in the stage production I saw.