Connecticut Repertory Theatre is wrapping up the season with a pretty rough production of Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking musical Rent, running through April 30 at the Nafe Katter Theatre at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
Rent is a musical that I have held with a certain inner conflict over the past decade or so. Back in the mid-90s I was captivated by the rock musical and would have easily defined myself as a Renthead, playing the cast album on repeat while taking long cross country drives from my then family home in Arizona and college in Kansas. Seriously, nothing hits like listening to “Santa Fe” and “What You Own” while driving through the New Mexico wilderness.
The musical’s themes of finding life in the midst of a people dying from the AIDS epidemic hit real to me, though I never knew anyone at that point who had AIDS, or knew anyone who was openly gay at that point in my life.
Even then, at 19 living in two very conservative states, I was seeing the imbalance of cultures and how artists would want to flee oppressive pockets of the country to celebrate the world as they see it with like minded people. It’s a big reason I moved to New York City in 1998.
Based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Boheme, Rent follows filmmaker Mark played by Robert Liniak, his musician roommate Roger, played by Carlos Fruzzetti, and their collection of friends who are living in Alphabet City in the East Village of New York.
When their former roommate Benny, played by Ammon Dower, who has married his way into wealth, comes to visit, they are given the proposition of fulfilling all their needs as artists if they convince Mark’s ex-girlfriend, Maureen, played by Elizabeth McManus, to cancel a performance piece in the neighboring vacant lot protesting Benny’s father-in-law’s intention of clearing out of the homeless and local struggling artists to build condominiums.
In all of this, Roger, the girl he meets that night, Mimi, played by Kiera Prusmack, his and Roger’s friend Collins, played by Tony King, and Collins’ new lover whom he meets that night as well, Angel, played by Owen Ing, all are HIV-positive.
All of the first act takes place on a Christmas Eve night in the mid-90s, while the second act takes place on different holidays throughout the following year.
It can be argued that Rent has quite a few narrative flaws, of which I agree there are plenty. What starts in the first act as an engaging character study of the New York Bohemian culture struggling through the AIDS crisis turns into a show that has a major second act problem as these jumps through time don’t give time for character development. We’re expected to accept that this is where everyone is in that moment and move on.
At this point in seeing Rent, I also need to remind myself that I once was 20 too and that young adults have a greater propensity to act on impulse and fight against what they see as injustices and fight for whatever noble cause they may have even to their own detriment. Something the protagonists do frequently throughout Rent.
As for Connecticut Rep’s production, I mostly like the design, particularly Elizabeth Olson’s concept of wrapping the whole Nafe Katter Theatre in the environment of the musical.
The performances were overall rough. Many of the vocals had pitch issues and when the songs got complicated like “Will I,” and “Christmas Bells” vocals dropped as people were unsure of where they were supposed to be singing and what.
There were a couple good turns in Rent. Liniak is a pretty solid Mark. He comes off a bit more nerdy than I’m used to for the role versus being a smart aleck auteur filmmaker, but it mostly works. I would have liked him to be a bit more aggressive in his lines of admonishment, especially toward Roger and Benny. He drops the intensity when he gets angry versus raising the stakes, muffling the tension.
King is a great Collins and his chemistry with Ing is sweet. Though King has some vocal issues with the first act “I’ll Cover You” he makes up for it in his acting.
The biggest problem with this production of Rent was a lack of energy overall by the cast, with the couple exceptions mentioned above. The opening number, “Rent,” was extremely flat and disengaging. It wasn’t until the song “Santa Fe” that I felt like the cast’s energy started to catch a stride of any kind. Though there are flaws in the narrative and the cast is generally lackluster, Rent still holds a place in my heart, mostly due to it being one of the linchpin shows that had me fall in love with theater. This production has good elements. But, it needed a lot more energy and a bit more work on the music.