Street | Theater

Individual standouts in 'Rent'

Director Adin Walker’s ’16 troupe of performers is only the latest of many tenants to spend time in “Rent,” the 1996 musical and worldwide sensation that tells the story of a ragtag bunch of artists living la vie bohème in New York’s East Village.

The title refers to the financial anxiety with which playwright Jonathan Larson’s characters grapple, as they struggle to survive in a world where artistic ideals don’t pay the rent. The title also highlights the transient nature of these characters’ lives — the month-to-month living with no permanence or promises. The characters Collins and Angel — portrayed by Thomas Gonzalez Roberts ’16 and Chris Murphy ’15, respectively — sing to each other in the song “I’ll Cover You” that although love can’t be bought, at least it can be rented. In other words, their happiness won’t be forever — both have AIDS — but it’s theirs for a while. The word “rent” also means “torn,” and the characters in this show are torn between conflicting desires: comfort and idealism, love and the fear of heartbreak.

When you watch a show like “Rent,” that arrives on a giant wave of cultural hype, you want it to throw you off-balance and shock your system. It’s a rock musical: You want it to be thunderously loud. You want the performers to sing with urgency and insistence — to sing as young people positively bursting with conviction, people who have something they must, must tell you.

Unfortunately, this production features a cast which, with a few exceptions, consistently struggles with the musical demands of “Rent.” Billed as a “rock opera”, “Rent” is nearly completely sung — the nuances of each character, the complex and roiling emotions and the entirety of the story are communicated to the audience through song. Therefore, it’s difficult for audiences to overlook the actors in this production regularly wandering off-key and losing each other in the music.

And it’s no wonder the actors struggle: The score of “Rent” is relentless and challenging. The most likely explanation for the vocal shortcomings of this production is simple vocal exhaustion. And this reviewer suspects, from intermittent evidence, that many of these actors are capable of achieving far more with this score than they managed at Thursday night’s opening.

In any case, the production simply does not accommodate for the demands of the musical form. The fatigued and uneven vocals affect other aspects of the company’s performance, resulting in a production that is generally low-energy. This feels like a show that stretched everyone with its ambition — a fine thing, in some ways, given the richness of Walker’s vision — but has not resulted in a cast that feels, or sounds, sufficiently secure, especially when singing alone.   Luckily, “Rent” is the type of show that can survive in spite of missing pieces, because it’s written as a talent show of sorts — full of opportunities for individual performers to charm you in discrete moments, independent of the show’s overall energy. Manuel Marichal ’16 plays the show’s narrator, Mark Cohen, with exceptional skill and charm. Marichal resists all temptations to become a passive caricature, and presents audiences with a Mark that is at once nerdy and raucous, affable and emotionally handicapped, compassionate and myopic. Murphy shines as the drag queen Angel. Vivacious and endearing, Murphy forms the emotional heart of this production, serving up both the sweet in his love song with Roberts and the feisty in his first number, “Today 4 U”. You might feel nervous for Murphy as he stalks onto stage in sky-high stilettos, but never fear: He struts and cha-chas in those heels as effortlessly as he portrays Angel, weak and shivering, in her final moments. Victoria Gruenberg ’16 is a gem as the matter-of-fact Joanne, the lawyer who struggles to maintain self-respect in her tumultuous relationship with the unfaithful and unpredictable Maureen. In lieu of the fierce and fabulous lipstick lesbian, Gruenberg opts for a softer, more vulnerable Joanne — an interpretation I occasionally found magnetizing.

Although, for simple lack of energy, this production falters in climactic moments, it shines in instants of raw, quiet emotion. Walker’s use of contemporary dance to highlight these dramaturgically still moments is exceedingly clever. In particular, the simple and expressive choreography to the song “Will I” was at once aesthetically gorgeous and eloquent in terms of storytelling. Not so clear in terms of storytelling was the use of the ensemble at the beginning of the show. The ensemble constantly flowed in and out of the opening scenes in Mark and Roger’s studio apartment, muddying the narrative. This production of “Rent” is brilliant in flashes, but lackluster overall.

Paws: 3 out of 5

Pros: Some great performances and beautiful use of dance

Cons: Low energy, uneven vocals

 

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