A Classic Confusing Rent

 Ian Huffam

“What binds the fabric together when the raging, shifting winds of change keep ripping away?” This, and other questions, are raised in the eponymous opening song of Sock ‘N Buskin’s RENT, but they are difficult to answer when the production itself doesn’t seem to know what’s binding it together. What’s even stranger, however, is that despite not knowing its own through-line, there is undoubtedly something keeping this show in one piece.

That’s not to say this show doesn’t have its problems. The almost non-existent set isn’t in itself an issue, but a minimalist set usually places more importance on the physical staging of the actors to create their own world when the audience can’t as easily see it. Paired with director Geoff Burnside’s extremely simplistic blocking, the end result is an unusual atmosphere that makes RENT feel less like a musical play and more like a song cycle in concert. This “concert” mood places more emphasis on the performance of the music itself and that in turn diverts attention from important plot details, that define the relationships between characters (which is generally assumed to be the heart and soul of the piece) which are only fleetingly mentioned in Act I. Unfortunately, any theatre-goers not familiar with RENT in its original form might sit through the 2 ½ hour production very confused.

Since the general effect of the staging places so much emphasis on the individual performances, it’s worth talking about the actors. The real standout in this show is Jordan King as the tortured musician Roger, who looks the part, sounds the part, and in general becomes the part. His voice, perfectly suited for the rock and roll style, actually trembles with passion during his more heated moments, revealing the broken heart that leaves Roger wary of human connection. Annie King-Smith and Stephanie Hughes as the rebellious Maureen and the A-type lawyer Joanne, respectively, are a great on-stage couple; their chemistry and lovely vocals make the break-up duet “Take Me or Leave Me” a pleasure.

As with any musical that has remained so popular for so long, it is the music really makes this production and Chris Santillán’s musical direction leads to some wonderful harmonies in the group numbers. The harmonies are so wonderful in fact that at times they overshadow some of the solos. Ciara Roberts as junkie stripper Mimi was done an injustice when her stage mic was left off for the entire duration of her solo “Out Tonight,” but she rose to the challenge by belting it out and holding her own against the band. At times there are a few cast members whose notes seem to be just out of their respective ranges, and diction is a bit of an issue especially in the lyric-heavy songs like “Today 4 U” and “La Vie Boheme.”

The most frustrating aspect of this production is the acting. It seems like so much attention has been paid to the external qualities (like bizarre extraneous dancing to distract from the countless times the stage crew carries the same table on and off the stage) that there was no attention paid to the internal qualities, to allow the actors to find their own meaning in what they say and sing. RENT’s most iconic song, “Seasons of Love,” is sung with all the actors standing in a line across the stage, singing while they stare off into… something. Are they engaged in a one-sided dialogue with the audience? Are they really speaking to themselves, searching within for the one true way to measure a year? Have they adopted this staging because that’s how every production of RENT ever has done it? Their expressionless faces don’t seem to know, and so the audience doesn’t either.

What is it then that ties together this production, with its high highs and its low lows? The question comes up during the first song of Act I and the answer, fittingly enough, comes up during the first song of Act II: love. Cheesy? Absolutely. But, still true. For all the issues this show faces, it is so clear that every one of the performers truly loves what they are doing with this show and even though it shouldn’t be the thing that holds it all together, it manages. It really speaks to the special place that RENT has in the collective conscience of musical-lovers.

18 years after premiering on Broadway, RENT has become such a cultural phenomenon that that it almost seems too obvious a programming choice, particularly where student or youth theatre is concerned. Not so: RENT is, oddly, still relevant today. Its depiction of disaffected young people searching for their own meaning of life and rejecting the bourgeois values of their middle-class parents made it a counterculture icon in 1996, but it’s a timeless struggle that affects Gen Y as much as it did Gen X. That quite a few of these young people voluntarily live a life of poverty for the sake of their values should speak to “hipsters” everywhere. The AIDS… well, that part hasn’t aged as well, but for being the quintessential musical of the ‘90s RENT is still pretty relatable in 2014. The source material shines through, even if this production isn’t necessarily the clearest platform.

 

Playing until January 25 at Carleton University’s Kailash Mital Theatre

Curtain Time 8:00 pm

Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson

Directed by Geoff Burnside

Musical Direction by Chris Santillán

Stage Management by Athena Green

Cast: Massil Ait-Ouali, Tim Baretto-Burns, Julia Bobiak, Alex Brunjes, Valerie Hinderson, Stephanie Hughes, Jordan King, Annie King-Smith, Jessie Kuno, Ryan Lutton, Kevin Macdonald, Elijah Mucciacio, Terri Pimblett, Ciara Roberts, David Shiff, Mikayla Young