Tuesday, June 14, 2011

RENT: Quaint

L-R, front row: John Stewart as "Benny," Michael K. Harry as "Collins," Felicia Boswell as "Mimi," Stanley Allyn Owen as "Roger," and Maxim Gukhman as "Mark." Image from Atlanta Lyric Theatre's Facebook page.

I've recently seen both FOLLIES and RENT.   FOLLIES (see my review "Haunting and Haunted"), from 1971, concerns old people haunted by memories of the 1930s and 1940s.  RENT opened in the mid-1990s just after the death of its young creator Jonathan Larson,.  But RENT is the one that feels more dated.

The production by Atlanta Lyric Theatre at the Earl Smith Strand Theatre in Marietta, Georgia, was energetically performed by a cast of strong singers, all of them earnest actors, dressed in a variety of the uniforms worn in the 90s by defiant non-conformists under thirty.    Enunciation was clear, dancing was energetic and virile in that fist-pumping way that we’ve come to expect from modern performers. Scaffolding climbed the stage’s bricked walls to create the urban milieu of the story. The rock band rocked; the lights directed our attention to the right places.

But the rock music had a quaint feel.  It has become the music of men with thinning hair and AARP cards.  (Recently an eighth grader complained to me, “What’s the music going to be? I hope it won't be rock.”) Worse, the high-strung emotional songs, the attitude of the defiant anthems -- complete with middle-finger -- all seemed generalized, just what we'd expect from rock anthems of this or that type. We applauded the performers emotional sounds; we didn’t share them.

One character mentions that he’s on AZT, a drug that I haven’t heard mentioned in so long that I’d forgotten about it. In the time of RENT's composition, it was the only hope for slowing the progress of the AIDs virus.

The transvestite Angel and his lover Collins got more laughs and more tears for their strand of the story than other couples in the show. From initial attraction through deepening affection, their story seemed real. The principal romance between Roger and Mimi, starting over a candle (a device borrowed from the show’s source, La Boheme), seemed much less substantial. So far as I could tell, Roger liked the shape of her rear end, and she liked cocaine. The ups and downs of their relationship just didn’t mean much.

One character made perfect sense, all the way through:  Bad guy "Benny," played with fierce presence and often affable demeanor by John Stewart, was clear in his intentions, his self-justification, and his mixed feelings.

Larson knew his Broadway as well as his rock. The show clarified and perked up whenever the music was driven by character, not the beat. There were those Bernstein / Sondheim places where several groups of characters sang different lyrics and different material in counterpoint. There were pastiches, such as the amusing “Tango: Maureen” and “email” messages from characters’ parents. “I’ll Cover You,” sung by Angel and Collins, was rousing and touching. When Roger and Mimi stopped yelling and whispered, “I should tell you, I should tell you…,” they were at their most interesting.

That’s what they were singing at the inevitable death of Mimi, and I was tearing up. It works in La Boheme, too, as the tenor, realizing that she has died, sings just one word, “Mimi!” and the curtain falls. So, what happened after Roger sang “Mimi” in RENT seemed like a cheap trick from some light comedy.

”Seasons of Love,” which opens the second act, is as good as the show gets, encapsulating the show’s best intentions in one lovely anthem.

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