I dismissed Rent when it became a runaway hit in 1996. After a quick listen to the cast album (accompanied by a refusal to attend the show), I considered the piece a simplified, convoluted, and over-romanticized take on contemporary urban living.
Loosely based on the Puccini opera La Boheme, which details the lives of struggling Bohemians living in Paris, Rent features characters living in New York's East Village and struggling with loss, infidelity, materialism, and HIV. The plot line of Rent is confusing. The program includes an abbreviated character map - called "Rent Who's Who" - to help theater-goers keep up. The numerous plot lines frustrate any success of a single plot line development.
HIV-positive musician Roger Davis (Kevin Spencer) and indie filmmaker Mark Cohen (David Oliver Cohen) are best friends and roommates living in a rundown East Village apartment building. Their former roommate, Benny Coffin (Matthew S. Morgan) now owns the building, and tries to coerce Roger and Mark into squashing a protest planned to halt Benny's plans to build a studio on the site of the apartment building and its adjacent lot, which is inhabited by a group of homeless people. Also living in Benny's building is Mimi Marquez (Krystal L. Washington), a drug-addicted, HIV-positive 19-year-old dancer. Mimi and Roger are sparked into a hesitant romance whose trajectory makes a bit more sense with some knowledge of La Boheme's plot. Mark's former partner Maureen (Jordan Ballard), who left him for lawyer Joanne (Bridget Anne Mohammed), leads the protest.
The introduction of other main characters, such as Mark's and Roger's friend Tom Collins (Bruce Wilson, Jr.) and Collins' transgendered boyfriend Angel Schunard (Justin Rodriguez) only dilutes the substance of the play. What is lacking is any hierarchy of character and the emotional sympathy of this reviewer is stretched across too many relationships. With a simplified plot arc, the death of Angel would achieve greater poignancy and the fencing match that is the relationship between Roger and Mimi would find more tension.
The score is catchy, if uneven. Spencer's rendition of "One Song Glory" is gripping and heart-wrenching and dovetails wonderfully with Washington's version of "Light My Candle." Other songs exist as exposition almost spoken over the music. The miking of the show was loud and the volume often obscured the lyrics, and the mixing edged too far toward the high end rendering Washington's voice as something nearing a shriek at times.
The power of Rent - and there is power - is also contextual. Rent represents the inclusion of often taboo issues into theater - homosexuality, transgenderism, HIV infection. Though the message of Rent is predictable, it is not wrong-headed.
Yet, for all its sentimental moments and impressive choreography, one of Rent's most compelling elements is non-fiction. As any Rent devotee will tell you, show creator Jonathan Larson-the man who spent seven years creating Rent-died of an aortic aneurysm on January 25, 1996, the day before Rent premiered. Finally, these years later, I attended a production of Rent and was surprised at how moved I was by this simplified, convoluted, over-romanticized take on contemporary urban living.
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