This Year’s RENT

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

Back in 1999, I didn’t watch RENT for the first time. I listened to it. In my tiny conservatory dorm room on the sixth floor of the Stratford Arms in New York City, I got to know Mark, Roger, Tom Collins, Angel, Mimi, Maureen, Joanne, Benny, and the rest of the gang during repeated plays of the original cast recording double-CD. It was at least two years and at least as many thousands of listens before I saw RENT performed live. I’d had the chance to see it before that, but there was something sacred and profoundly personal to me about RENT. I didn’t want to share the experience. Many others did, however. RENT is the ninth longest-running musical in Broadway history.

Thirteen years after I first listened to Roger tune his guitar, I found myself in a packed house of theatergoers in the Eagle Theater in Hammonton, preparing to revisit the musical that inspired so many cathartic tears and caterwauling sing-a-longs from my younger self. I wondered, will the show hold up? Are the social issues RENT explored still relevant? Even then, will these —  these strangers do the show justice? I’m maybe a little over-possessive of RENT.

Such is the spell that Jonathan Larson’s opus (loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Boheme) cast on my generation. The story of a group of friends who sacrificed every creature comfort to commit themselves to their art, who created and clung to their chosen families in response to the specters of drug addiction and AIDS, who embraced life with passion, is a melodramatic romance tailored to the restless imaginations of a generation of young adults who were eager to share in that passion and its attending pathos. A significant number of RENT’s primary characters are afflicted with HIV or AIDS, and RENT is set during the time when that was still the most terrifying thing you could fucking think of, pardon the French. In the face of so much tragedy and destitute living, the rallying cry of RENT wasn’t “We’re All Going to Die Widowed Penniless Junkie Failures Before We’re 30,” it was “No Day But Today,” it was a call to live. Young people like that. Hell, everybody likes that. I still get choked up just thinking about “La Vie Boheme.”

So how does RENT hold up? Pretty well, actually. The reality of life at the end of the millenium is a lot like the reality twelve years in. The social issues explored in RENT, like the HIV epidemic, may not have the same urgency as they did then, but the fight against AIDS is not yet over, and the same goes for the fights against drug addiction, poverty, and the systemic oppression that prompts RENT’s chorus of derelicts to sing, “No sleigh bells, no Santa Claus, no yule log, no tinsel, no holly, no hearth, no Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, no room at the Holiday Inn, oh no, and it’s beginning to snow.” There are streaks of righteous outrage towards wealth inequality in RENT that would be right at home at an Occupy Wall Street rally.

And what of the Collaborative Stage Productions performance? Solid. RENT, being a rock opera, demands strong vocals and a lot of stamina, and each lead is up to the task. Mark (Ed Corsi), the amiable filmmaker who also narrates much of the action, has excellent musical chemistry with his brooding musician roommate Roger (Brian Bortnick). Their songs together are crisp and powerful enough for a stadium. Maureen (Rachel Pinkstone Marx) is a vocal powerhouse with a personality to match. Christina Maslin’s “Mimi” is the right mix of youthful brashness and affecting tenderness, but her showstopper number “Out Tonight” stops just short of the bombast the occasion calls for. To be fair, it’s a song that includes howling, gyrating, belting, and swinging up and down railings in platform heels, and is probably the most physically demanding of any of the musical numbers. Still, though, the seams were showing.

Josh Bessinger’s “Angel” doesn’t fall short of the mark, but he does overdo things a bit. Josh has a beautiful and very technically adept voice that snakes its way up and down his range with ease, but while the melisma that he unleashes would make for a boffo American Idol audition, it detracts from the character of Angel, who is essentially the emotional core of the show. Sometimes less really is more, or put another way, young talented sir, you can do better than to add to the  X-Tinafication of a nation.

Elsewhere, there were moments of similar showiness that marred things slightly. The middle finger made a few too many cameo appearances, for example. A lot of birds were flipped during this performance. Primary characters, secondary characters, chorus people, everybody seemed to take their chance to Stick It To The Man, sometimes even in pairs, and they relished these opportunities with an enthusiasm that was a little goofy.

On the whole, the cast at The Eagle is strong, and when they gathered onstage to perform their group numbers, the beauty and cohesion of their combined voices was enough to give me goosebumps. Bryan Pitt as anarchist professor Tom Collins,  Benita Simpson as lesbian attorney Joanne, and Ed “Rico” Santiago as social-climbing landlord Benny deserve to be lauded for their polished, well-rounded performances, and the supporting chorus is utilized smartly, adding layers upon layers of emotional richness to the stage. 

To wit, the cast and crew at the Hammonton staging of RENT are doing major justice to a much-beloved piece of musical theater history, and with performances like these, it’s just about guaranteed that awkward 19 year old musical theater nerds of the future will have the chance to feel the same fierce devotion towards Jonathan Larson’s life work as I did when I first discovered RENT. That would be something to sing about for as many multiples of 525,600 minutes that are left on this earth.

Viva la vie boheme!

(photo credit: Chris Miller)

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