While Rent debuted 27-years ago, director Thom Allison and a vibrant powerhouse company of performers claimed ownership of Jonathan Larson’s ground-breaking rock musical for the Stratford Festival 2023 season with a plethora of scene-stealing performances.
Debuting during Pride Month, the production is still relevant today. Staged during a period when the AIDs epidemic was claiming countless lives daily with victims being brushed aside by mainstream society, yet it still holds significance today on a personal level for many and for a public that has slowly grasped the severity of what is a much-broader issue.
As a result, there are several genuinely heartbreaking solos from cast including:
- The dynamic Nestor Lozano Jr. in the role of the flamboyant much-loved and revered drag-queen Angel Dumott with You Okay Honey? that nearly brought the audience to its collective feet in the very early moments of the production
- Lee Siegel, whose character anarchist/professor Tom Collins delivers a devastating reprise of I’ll Cover You as a tribute to the fallen Angel.
- Andrea Macasaet as the Cat Scratch Club’s exotic dancer Mimi Marquez who brings the house down with raw vocal power in Out Tonight and a duet with the HIV-positive guitar playing songwriter Roger Davis (Kolton Stewart) for the show-stopping Without You.
- Indie filmmaker Mark Cohen (Robert Markus) touching upon personal isolation, overwhelming loneliness, and death in Halloween.
- Bisexual former lover of Mark’s, Maureen Johnson (Erica Peck), showcasing her multi-faceted vocal approach – with a tasty touch of Janis Joplin – in Over the Moon.
Joyfully trotted out with great gusto by the full company, La Vie Bohème (The Bohemian Life) is both an anthem-like observance of the lifestyle of those artistic misfits living in the 1980s Alphabet City, Manhattan and a number that reveals the roots of Larson’s musical concept.
Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 four-act opera La Bohème – telling the tale of young bohemians living in Paris’ Latin Quarter during the 1840s – Larson’s Rent is a modernistic re-telling of starving young artists. Living under the ever-present haunting spectre of HIV/AIDS, many of the central figures suffering from the disease.
While largely viewed as a revolutionary bold new approach to Broadway musicals, it is far from the first project to borrow liberally from classic music and will certainly not be the last to offer a bright new version of the more traditional productions.
Peter Townsend and Andrew Lloyd Webber paved the way with their respective rock operas Tommy (1969) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1970). Both were preceded by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis’s Kismet, a theatrical adaptation of a 1911 play that debuted on The Great White Way in 1953, transforming Alexander Borodin’s classical music for the modern idiom. It took home the Tony for best musical.
Revived on several occasions since its Broadway debut nearly 30 years ago and released as a 2005 film featuring Jesse L. Martin (Law & Order), the original Tom Collins, the 2023 Stratford version demonstrates the musical drama’s staying power while displaying the festival’s unique ability to transform popular works into its own.
Marc Kimelman’s vibrant and energetic choreography is ideally suited to the fast-paced production, brought to the fore by the spirited ensemble of singer/dancers. Music director Franklin Brasz never misses a beat with the lively and often poignant score.
Set designer Brandon Kleiman captures the very essence of the bitter cold, crowdy grimness of the poster-laden living space the main characters inhabit – even when padlocked by owner/former friend but now rich Benjamin Coffin III (Jahlen Barnes’ delightfully antagonistic landlord with shades of decency hovering on the edges).
They ultimately survive in these rather hostile surroundings with their community of outcasts and publicly shunned artists/showgirls/philosophers. Even the outdoor entrance offers little protection as Collins discovers courtesy of a vicious beating at the hands of the local thuggery.
As the wonderfully eye-catching and offbeat costumes, the often-brilliant lighting, projection, and sound are as key to the story as the characters themselves, designers Ming Wong, Michael Walton, Corwin Ferguson, and Joshua D. Reid had their work cut out for them but met the challenges with just the right touches.
Produced by David Auster, with casting well-delivered by Beth Russell and Canadian Screen Award winner director Thom Allison applies his considerable skills and experience from Stratford, Broadway and the Shaw Festival to an explosive work that demands a balanced integration of drama and comedy.
In the program guide, Allison wisely pointed to quotes from Rent spending “equal time inhabiting my psyche. They live together, as two sides of the same coin”:
“How do you measure a year in the life … measure in love” and “Connection in an isolating age.”
His approach to both the still inexplicably touchy subject matter and the company of performers that bring to life an unusually endearing collection of social outcasts comes to full visual fruition. The result is literacy potency laced with genuine personal feelings in this highly entertaining and very provocative piece of theatre.
“The characters in this show are artists, exotic dancers, independent filmmakers, rock singers, anarchist professors, drug addicts, gay people, people of colour, the unhoused, drag queens. People who in the early 1990s were not welcomed into “polite society” or given respect, at the best of times. Sadly, many still aren’t, as we witness on a daily basis.”
While there is clearly much to be accomplished decades later both privately and publicly on a wider scale, the Stratford company’s Rent provides a huge step on the artistic front with a polite nod to education, while providing an intoxicatingly entertaining night at the Festival Theatre.
Rent continues until Oct. 29 in its glorious chaotic splendour. Although not a prerequisite for entry, tissues are highly recommended – whether you’re bemoaning a lost stage character or simply weeping for joy.