Directed by Bill Doscher
Music Directed by Shawn Gelzleichter
Mark: Todd Sandstrom
Maureen: Anne Olmsted
Mimi: Sara Jane Burns
Angel: Jose Romero
Roger: Joshua Rajman
Benny: Matthew Ford
Joanne: Shira Cahn-Lipman
Collins: Rishi Basu
I remember when "Rent" first came out it was essentially the bees knees. Now nearly 15 years later, the show is still a favorite among the masses. I first saw the show in 2001 and immediately became a fan of the music. A few nights ago, I was able to catch one of the many productions that have debuted in Massachusetts at the Footlight Club.
The story is adapted from Puccini’s opera, La Boheme into an original rock opera written and composed by Jonathan Larson. We are taken into the world of various artists and musicians who are living and creating in the lower east side in Alphabet City in New York City. They deal with many different issues, including love and loss, but more importantly the encroachment of HIV/AIDS. We see the lives of Mark, an aspiring filmmaker, Roger, a musician, Collins, a former MIT professor, Angel, a cross-dressing musician, Mimi a dancer, Maureen a performance artist and her girlfriend, Joanne, a lawyer and Benny, a former friend now turned antagonist. The story takes place over the course of a year.
As a show, "Rent" presents many different challenges. The show is very difficult to stage effectively without creating a lot of problems of congestion. One the major things I noticed in this production are that the direction was very difficult to understand and get on board with. Specifically, I felt the placement of the actors during the bigger numbers felt like they were almost out of place. The attempt to create a community of characters didn’t work. They could've used the rest of the stage and set a bit more. Also, throughout the show we hear the voice mails of the character’s parents. When they appear on stage, they had masks covering their face, thus abandoning the whole point of an ensemble, especially if their function is to play multiple characters. Also down center stage was terribly underused. I’m not saying it needs to be used all the time, but when I’m watching the opening number, “Rent” I wanted to see Mark and Roger be the focus, as they open the song. My attention wants to be drawn to center and then follow them as they utilize other parts of the stage. There were other places in the show that would’ve benefited from this, not just with solo singing moments.
Brian Crete created a very simple and strong set. The levels and balconies that were created for the space worked. I loved the use of cobbled together pieces and flats, creating a Frankenstein-esque feel. As for the lighting, I was surprised that there was very little beyond simple front and back lighting and the use of spots. In “Contact”, however, red lights were used to heighten the emotions and the sexual energy that was being displayed. Combined with the heavy and well choreographed, stylized movement, it played extremely well. However, for certain moments and changes in emotion, there was a lack of color and feeling. It would’ve been nice to see some warm tones thrown in once in a while. It felt very limited.
The performances that stood out were Rishi Basu’s Tom Collins, who is at ease in the role. He is comfortable in the character and sings with a nice soothing calm. His voice is unique and he plays the friend that everyone wants and needs. Another strong performance was Anne Olmstead, who as Maureen plays the rambunctious performance artist. Her voice rocks out extremely well and her attitude was sharp to boot. Her piece “Over The Moon” is hilarious and well done, though at times felt she didn’t milk it as much as she could, rushing moments that needed to be savored. However, there is no denying that show had strong performances in general from all cast members, but one key ingredient that was missing was chemistry. Actors captured their individual character strongly, but the interaction between them fell short. The show "Rent" is written to bring forth intensity and raw relationships that are created throughout the story. In this production, some major relationships are lost because very few went beyond the motions of blocking and singing. There could've been stronger established relationships. As whole though, the energy is strong and everyone is able to keep going throughout the production. In addition, a lot of the musical numbers were good as well, especially “Santa Fe”. It’s beautifully done and sounds so smooth and sweet. You can almost picture the place itself. Another good number was “Take Me Or Leave Me” where the uncompromising Maureen her girlfriend Joanne, played smartly and strongly by Shira Cahn-Lipman, volleyed back and forth, refusing to cave on their individuality. It’s a great moment to see and you really feel where they are coming from. A lot of the other numbers sounded really good, but as mentioned before I expected and wished for a tad more of intensity.
Shawn Gelzleichter’s music direction is extremely well developed. The band is strong and it is able to capture the rocking score of this beast of a show. To me, that is one the of the many important things that needs to be showcased in "Rent". It represents the backbone and nerve center and Gelzleichter and his crew pull it off. They work incredibly well as a unit and blend strongly. I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future. Since he had his work cut out with him in this show, he handles it with ease and is fearless with his direction.
"Rent" is a good production but as I mentioned there are a few aspects that I wished I had seen more of. It is important to know that this is a very heavy and emotionally challenging show, but like any major production, it requires a lot of work. The performers keep their energy up and are able to create a solid interpretation of this show, especially because it has been done so much recently. I admire this production of "Rent" for the amount of work and love that was put in.