Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2006
About halfway through the very long first act of Rent I was beginning to panic. Why wasn’t I thrilled and excited by this show? It’s won Tonys and Pulitzers, for lord’s sake. It’s run for a decade on Broadway and has a huge cult following worldwide. What was wrong with me? Memories of the thrill of the Barrington Stage concert staging of Hair last season kept looming in my memory. “My generation knew how to write this kind of show,” I thought. I started to feel very old.
Thank goodness I had brought my 17-year-old son Brandon along with me. It didn’t ring his chimes either, which made me feel less antique and more able to focus on the fact that it wasn’t just me, something was wrong here.
Rent is a rock opera chronicling a year in the lives of some young men and women who live in New York’s “Alphabet City” – the blocks on the lower East Side that are lettered rather than named or numbered. They fancy themselves Bohemians. They are, in fact, drug addicts, prostitutes, drag queens, and drifters.
When it first appeared on the scene in 1996, at an intimate off-Broadway venue, Rent was a huge sensation. And, not to be macabre, the tragedy of creator Jonathan Larson’s sudden death days before his 36th birthday just as the show began previews guaranteed its cult status. Apparently, at that time and in that place, Rent spoke to a generation. It was not my generation and it was not Brandon’s.
I liked Rent much more when I listened to it on CD than when I saw it live last night at the Colonial (which is fabulous, by the way – more about that later). Part of the reason for that discrepancy lies in the fact that the stage show is heavily over miked. I really couldn’t hear the lyrics a lot of the time, and therefore had little idea who was who or what was going on. Of course I have access to a libretto, but no one should have to read a plot synopsis ahead of time in order to enjoy a show. From the back of the first balcony where we were seated, much of the first act was a blur of rapidly moving and badly dressed young people (were those clothes ever in fashion??) belting out very loud music.
Rent was inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme and it retains a lot of the hysterical intensity of grand opera, along with that genre’s penchant for a convoluted plot. There are three central couples in Rent – Roger and Mimi (heterosexual), Collins and Angel (gay males, one of whom is a drag queen), and Maureen and Joanne (lesbians). In addition there is Mark, Roger’s roommate, Maureen’s ex-, and the show’s narrator, and Benny, their landlord, along with assorted homeless folks, drug dealers, and parents of the leads. That is a lot of characters to introduce and make sympathetic, and I don’t think Larson really succeeds in doing that until well into the second act. Did I mention that the first act is long? Well, it feels even longer than it is because, by and large, you don’t give a damn about these people.
The couple that clicked with me in the first act was Collins and Angel. When I pondered why that was the answer was instantly apparent. They are the only people on stage having any fun. Everyone in Rent is supposedly some kind of “Artist,” with a capital A, but all they seem to do is sit around and whine and for art to happen so they can become rich and famous. Roger spends an entire year writing one song, which is fine but that is all that he does. I can’t help thinking that the song would have come to him more easily and quickly if he went out and lived life instead of sitting around waiting for it to happen to him.
Art doesn’t happen, it is made. Angel makes art. Angel is art. When Angel dies – I think of AIDS but frankly I didn’t know s/he was sick until they wrapped him/her in a sheet and wheeled an IV bag – Maureen has a line about how Angel would walk down the street, pick an old tablecloth out of the garbage, and make it into a dress, a knock-off of which would be hanging in the window of the Gap the following year. That’s how an artist works – picking up ideas, words, musical notes, colors, fabrics, faces and voices, and synthesizing, through talent and effort, a new creation. That is what Larson did to create Rent but that is what his characters fail to understand.
All that being said, this national tour of the Broadway production of Rent features a very talented cast who do their absolute best with the material at hand. I especially enjoyed Warren G. Nolan, Jr. as Collins, Ano Okera as Angel, Arianda Fernandez as Mimi, Chante Carmel Frierson as Joanne, and Tracy McDowell as Maureen. Joanne and Maureen’s story grew on me considerably as the show went on, and by the time they duked it out in their powerful Act II duet Take Me or Leave Me I was hooked on the actresses and their character’s romance.
Altamiecé Carolyn Ballard doesn’t get a special mention in the program, but she really wails as the soloist on the Act II opener Seasons of Love which was the big stand alone hit from Rent. Fernandez really shows off her dancing skills in Out Tonight which has her wrapped around, draped over, and dangling from the pipe scaffolding of the set at precipitous heights.
Speaking of the set, it’s plug ugly. These young “Artists” seem to live in a world of perpetual gloom and grime. I grew up in New York City and I can tell you that even its most derelict neighborhoods have beauty to them. Life is persistent even in a concrete jungle, with sunrises over the East River, sunsets over the Hudson, the twinkling lights of the buildings and bridges at night, the sight of dandelions literally shattering the sidewalk to get to the sunlight, the wonderful silence of the streets during a snowfall, and the lively ethnic diversity of every nook and cranny. Yes, there is danger, poverty, disease, cruelty, neglect, but those things are merely concentrated in, not relegated to urban areas.
So Brandon and I did not like Rent, but we did like the Colonial. We liked arriving and joining in the excitement of the crowd as we shuffled our way through the spacious lobby to the theatre proper. We loved the beautifully restored paint work throughout the building. We marveled at the incredible acoustics when executive director David Fleming addressed the capacity crowd without a microphone (that made the stupidly loud sound design of Rent all the more irritating).
During intermission we ran all over the building from top to bottom, plopping ourselves into vacant seats high and low to check out their comfort and sightlines, and here’s our report. You get what you pay for in terms of seating. The orchestra seats are wide and comfy with lots of leg room. The first balcony seats are wide and comfy with absolutely no leg room. And the second balcony seats are pew-like wooden benches. There are eight boxes, two left and two right, on each balcony level, each of which contain a couple of comfy-looking chairs. Both of the balconies are very steeply raked, so if you have severe acrophobia you will want to sit in the orchestra.
Our only complaint about the building was that it is confusing – full of nooks and crannies and dead ends and blind alleys. At one point we got into a staircase to descend from the second balcony to our seats in the first and discovered that all the doors bore signs that read “This is NOT an exit.” I had visions of being trapped forever in a concrete stairwell, but then we boldly opened one of the non-exits and found ourselves back in the land of the living. Another time we were walking down from the first balcony and an usher opened a door in front of us. We went through in to what appeared to be a lobby area, but the usher, the same one who had opened the door and let us in, told us we really weren’t allowed to be in there. Okay…
Obviously what the building still needs is interior signage and other methods to clearly mark major traffic routes. That will come in time, as the building is used more and people make their questions and concerns known.
The Colonial is everything we were promised and more. It is beautiful, quite comfortable, and it feels like a “real theatre.” I am sad to learn that it is too small to attract more Broadway tours – I had hoped to be spared the hour plus drive to Schenectady or Hartford – but I can see with its beautiful acoustics where it will become one of New England’s premiere concert halls. I can’t wait to go back for (an acoustic) musical event!
The audience for Rent was a large and lively one and a good mix of ages. But I didn’t see one non-white face, which made me sad because Rent is an ethnically diverse show and Pittsfield has a substantial non-white population. I think some effort needs to be expended to make sure the Colonial is accessible and appealing to everyone in the city and the region.
The national touring company of Rent is performing at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA, through September 3. Performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. August 29-September 1, September 2 at 2 & 8 p.m., and September 3 at 2 & 7:30 p.m.. Tickets are $20-$65. The show runs two hours and forty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 13 and up. Call the box office 413-997-4444 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006