Stage Door Review
Friday, June 16, 2023
music, book & lyrics by Jonathan Larson, directed by Thom Allison
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford
June 2-October 28, 2023
Mark: “How do you document real life / When real life’s getting more / Like fiction each day?”
The Stratford Festival is currently staging Jonathan Larson’s Rent for the first time. When I first saw the musical when it came to Toronto on tour in 2010, it still seemed like a modern work in its retelling of Puccini’s opera La Bohème for the 20th century. Now, only 13 years later, Rent set as it is in the pre-digital age, seems like an historical artefact. Its characters who have to confront each other face-to-face to work out difficulties seem closer to their counterparts in Puccini’s 1896 opera that they do to today’s youth. Thom Allison’s direction presents the musical much more like a rock concert than as the intimate rock opera that Rent is. The overall effect is that we are distanced from the characters and their concerns.
When I reviewed the show in 2010, I noted the relation of Rent to its source La Bohème: “Instead of depicting starving artists in 19th-century Paris, Larson moves a century ahead to look at the lives of starving artists in 1996 Manhattan. AIDS has replaced tuberculosis as the blight on youth. The show was revolutionary in its stripped-down production and in its positive depiction of gay, lesbian and bisexual characters”.
The prime difference between the original Rent and Rent at Stratford is that Stratford does not present a “stripped down production”. The original Rent took place primarily on a mass of chairs and tables with one staircase leading to a second space over an onstage band. At Stratford the band is hidden behind the stage façade on the third storey. The façade itself, as designed by Brendan Kleiman, has been covered over with all manner of windows that light up to suggest New York City and the famous thrust stage of the Festival Theatre has a smaller square stage on top of it to represent Roger and Mark’s apartment and stages at various clubs. It has its own built-in lights as does the rim of the thrust stage.
The stage-upon-the-stage has the flaw that it separates the action there from the action on the rest of the stage, something that did not happen in the original production. The idea of a separate space creates the idea of exclusivity and privacy which is not what the show is about. In the musical what happens to one of the group of friends happens to all of them. The other problem is that the stage-upon-the-stage makes movement around it very awkward.
The most obvious sign that Stratford’s Rent is different than the intimate original is Michael Walton’s use of computerized rock concert-style moving lights set along the back of the stage that sweep beams of light from the ceiling to just over the audience or vice versa. Allison has Walton use these lights to accentuate the choral numbers. The problem, of course, is that rather than depicting those on stage as a community, moving lights point to the singers as performers in a concert rather than characters in a story.
A much worse way in which Allison allows technology to get in the way of the story is in over-amplifying the entire show. Over-amplification recently ruined my enjoyment at the National Arts Centre of one of my favourite musicals, Notre Dame de Paris, and it became a constant annoyance during Stratford’s Rent. The music of Rent is rich and varied but over-amplification makes hearing the music more, not less difficult.
Larson has several sequences for chorus using delicate harmonies, but for all the choruses the amplification was turned up so high the sound became mush and blotted out Larson’s music even in the best-known song, “Seasons of Love”. Over-amplification leads to sound distortion and because of that about 50% of Larson’s lyrics go missing.
Despite the adoration of so-called Rentheads, Rent is not a perfect musical. The manipulative cop-out ending is a major disappointment. Larson’s goal has been to fashion a grittier, more contemporary version of La Bohème and instead concludes with a scene less realistic and more sentimental than does Puccini.
As a rock opera, Rent is about intimate relationships, not grandiose events as is, say Jesus Christ Superstar. The show revolves around a group of seven friends. The one not in a couple is Mark Cohen, the equivalent to Marcello in Puccini. Rather than a painter, Larson’s Mark, the narrator, is a documentary filmmaker who spends his time filming his friends. In Rent, Mark doesn’t seem to realize the limited scope of his subject matter nor how his habit of objectifying his friends on film has prevented him from having any real person-to-person relationship.
Robert Markus sings and acts the role well. Through the occasional pause Markus does suggest that Mark at least has moments when he reflects on the detrimental and in fact voyeuristic aspects of his vocation. From a 1996 perspective we are meant to applaud Mark’s decision not to take a job with a television news channel and stay true to his “art”. From a 2023 perspective, it looks like a foolish decision. Has he never heard of change from within or using one job as a stepping-stone to a better one? In any case, though Markus does what he can, it is still difficult to sympathize with his character.
The couple at the centre of Puccini’s opera are the poet Rodolfo and the seamstress Mimì. In Rent, they are replaced with Roger Davis, a singer-songwriter and Mimi Marquéz, an erotic dancer. In Puccini, Mimì has the incurable disease of the period, tuberculosis. In Rent both characters are HIV positive. Far from being the delicate flower in Puccini, Larson’s Mimi is the one who aggressively goes after Roger. She doesn’t realize that his standoffishness is both because his previous girlfriend committed suicide and because of his HIV status, but when he sees her take her AZT, he realizes that his status is no impediment. It becomes Mimi’s heroin addiction that is the greater impediment.
This would be touching except that Andrea Macasaet is annoying from her first appearance onwards. She seems to have taken a whiff of helium before her every entrance since her voice is so high and wobbly it makes her sound like a character in a children’s cartoon. This plus her distinctly awkward erotic dancing makes it very difficult to understand what Roger sees in her. Her voice is particularly harmed by the over-miking since her one number, “Without You”, when she uses a lower register comes across just fine.
As Roger, Kolton Stewart has the most attractive voice in the cast. This is in part because his part lies lower and thus is less subject to the distortion of the miking. But it is also that he consistently plays the role as if he were in a stage musical rather than in the rock concert version that Allison has set up. Stewart is able to convey all the pain of Roger’s past in his body language and delivery. And all of his songs from “One Song Glory” to “Your Eyes” act as a balm to ears deafened by the other higher voices.
Of the three couples surrounding Mark, the only one that conveys any sincere love to the audience is that of the drag performer Angel Dumont Schunard and the part-time philosophy teacher Tom Collins, both of whom have AIDS. This pair corresponds to the musician Schaunard and the philosopher Colline in Puccini who, however, are not in any kind of relationship. As Angel, Nestor Lozano, Jr., is clearly the star of the show. His character seems to be the only one of the seven who actually has any talent. Allison turns Angel’s number “Today 4 U” into a fantastic full-on drag routine plus percussion act that stops the show and received the loudest and longest applause of the evening.
Music theatre veteran Lee Siegel is Tom and convinces us of the love and protectiveness Tom feels toward Angel every time the two are together. Siegel gives a powerful rendition of “I’ll Cover You” in Act 2, marred only by the electric burr his high notes generate.
The third couple is the least interesting. This is Maureen Johnson, a performance artist, and Joanne Jefferson, a lawyer and Maureen’s director. These two are parallels to Puccini’s Musetta, a singer, and the counsellor Alcindoro, her elderly sugar daddy. Whereas the relation between Musetta and Alcindodo is comic in in Puccini, it is primarily an irritation in Larson.
Maureen’s performance art is supposed to be avant-garde, but what Allison and choreographer Marc Kimelman have devised for Erica Peck who plays Maureen looks simply ridiculous. As directed, we don’t really know if it is or isn’t intended to be comic. All Maureen and Joanne do is snipe at each other and neither Peck nor Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane, who plays Joanne, is able to suggest, Beatrice and Benedick style, that there is any attraction, much less love, that underlies their relationship.
While no one will be able to reconcile me to Larson’s ending, Rent still has a higher level of musical invention than do the majority of Broadway musicals. It is a great pity, then, that Allison’s staging should superficialize the musical by forcing into the mold of a rock concert. Stratford did not do this with the first rock opera it mounted – Jesus Christ Superstar in 2011. Why do so with Rent? A great musical should not need loudness and bright lights to make an impact.
Photo: Members of the cast of Rent, Robert Markus as Mark with camera (centre); Nestor Lozano, Jr. as Angel and Lee Siegel as Tom; Kolton Stewart as Roger. © 2023 David Hou.
For tickets visit: www.stratfordfestival.ca.