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RENT

Directed by Michael Greif
Starring Kevin Spencer, Ashton Holmes, Bruce Wilson, and Krystal Washington

A group of friends cope with poverty, HIV and joy as they are evicted from their apartment building.

 

 

2 stars

September 12th, 2002

 
    While there seemed to be a substantial story, the acting and the technical part of the production were extremely disappointing.

I disliked more about this show than I liked. I don't think I clapped at an entire scene when it was over. When part of the audience tried to give a standing ovation, even though I couldn't see in front of me to the stage anymore, there was no way I was going to stand for this performance.

My first complaint came for the actors playing Mark and Roger. They had terrible voices, both when talking and when singing. I cringed every time. I know they were supposed to look like struggling artists, but they looked terrible, as well. They couldn't show proper emotion, whether it was anger, love or regret. I saw nothing in them. They were supposed to carry the show, and I felt that they were not strong enough to do that.

However, at least I could understand what they were saying, most of the time, even when they were singing. When the combined cast came onto the stage, to sing the main theme, "Rent", I didn't understand a single word. It didn't get any better, either, as the show went on. Even in the second act, except for the well-known "Seasons of Love", all the voices intermixed, and the music overpowered everything.

I am not a fan of talking in a sing-song voice, but I can stand it when done well. In this case, it was anything but. Mark's mother was funny on the telephone, but the others didn't have enough talent to save the material. The overused technique of having the narrator, in this case Mark, tell us what is happening really detracts from the show. Why couldn't we get the scene setting or character backgrounds in dialog form? Surely the writers could have come up with some snappy dialog like "happy one week anniversary" to indicate that a week has passed, instead of Mark's "fast forward one week..."

Even the humor fell flat, though much of the audience seemed to get a kick out of it. Most of the humor came in the form of physical gestures, obscene ones, and foul language coming from unexpected sources. Why is that funny? Maybe the first time, like the evicted homeless woman's outburst. But time after time? I don't think so. Maureen's gestures must have come from some Saturday Night Live skit that I've never seen, because all she had to do was bend her arms in a certain way and the audience burst into laughter. There were only a couple of parts where I was even faintly amused.

What's left to complain about except the writing... Most of the songs sounded as if they were actually written by Mark or Roger, burned out juvenile artists with no creative talent whatsoever. Rhymes were made from unrelated concepts, just to make a rhyme, it seems. So-called songs were really just meaningless chatter set to music. There was little in the way of substance or emotional punch to most of the songs, and a lot of cliché.

And yet, there was some beauty involved in this production. The first moment that softened my heart to the story was the introduction of Mimi. She has a magnificent voice, especially when singing her introductory song, "Light My Candle". Wow, I was amazed. But then the producers put her in a slutty outfit and removed everything that was sexy about her. She came back to life after being spurned between Roger and her former lover, Benny.

I didn't understand Benny's motivations or turns in this show. He bought the building so that he could turn it into a cyber-studio, and then turned around and offered his evicted friends free rent. In the second act, after padlocking the building, he turns around again and opens it back up to everybody who lived there. He gains nothing except the scorn of his friends, though they seem to have forgiven him by the end.

The pair of actors who played Collins and Angel were probably the best in the show. How the transvestite Angel managed to do both the male and female parts is beyond me, because he was great in both. He really looked indistinguishable from a woman, except for the "something is wrong but I can't place it" thought that comes from looking at him. The make-up department had something to do with that, but most of it comes straight from the actor, who put the nuances and just the right touches into the part. Collins, his gay lover, was very emotional, and played the part well.

Lesbian lovers Maureen and Joanne played their parts reasonably well, also. I sympathized more with Joanne, because she was more withdrawn, emotional, and better acted. I didn't like the character of Maureen, though I think she was played with the proper attitudes for her character. Maureen used to date Mark, and comes to his rescue with a protest performance against Benny's eviction of his tenants. She was obviously supposed to be beautiful, but I didn't see it. Aside from her massive bust and tiny waist, which are typical signs that I disagree with anyway, she was loud and raucous, insolent, and I found nothing to like about her.

Over the year, the group breaks up. The "family" really only came together when the building was threatened, yet they seem to think that Angel and Mimi are the glue holding the group together. When Angel dies of AIDS, the group starts to fragment. Roger comes back from California in time to help bring Mimi back from her AIDS near-death, because of her drug use. His song, the one that brought her back from "the light" -a terrible cliché terribly played- was also terrible.

And Mark gets his big break, working for a television studio, a job that he quits to make his own film, a true "artsy" film with no plot, just supposed emotion, and without the context to make it meaningful for anybody who didn't know the story of this family.

The production ends much the way it started, meaning nowhere in particular. Mimi and Roger are back together after he brought her back. Collins is sad, but refuses to make Angel's sacrifice meaningless -what sacrifice? He died of AIDS, not trying to bring about a better world -or if he did, we didn't get to see it. His was a tragedy, not a sacrifice. Maureen and Joanne break up many times, but finally realize they need each other. As for Benny and Mark, I don't really know if they learned anything, or if they have any dreams left. Mark made his movie, but Benny didn't get his cyber studio. Not that I care.

As I said, there was more here that I didn't like than I did. There was some beautiful music in this production, but too often it was marred by poor singing or lyrics. The set was beautifully simple, especially when more than one thing was going on at a time. The heavy-set black woman who played the homeless woman and one of the ensemble cast had a magnificent voice, especially when singing as part of "Seasons of Love." I would have liked to hear more of her. It was also interesting to note that all of the couples were inter-racial, from Roger and Mimi, Maureen and Joanne, and Collins and Angel.

But I found the spotlights to be too distracting (this is not a balcony-friendly show), the writing to be poor for the most part, and the acting from the two leads to be sorely lacking. There is enough to enjoy about this show, especially for people who may identify with the characters or story, but I did neither, and was not impressed enough to try. As such, I left feeling sorely disappointed, and I'm sorry for that. Other people I know loved the production, leaving me to wonder what they saw that I didn't.
 
   

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