When “Rent” exploded Off-Broadway in on Jan. 25, 1996, the night after the sudden death of its young composer Jonathan Larson, it seemed an unstoppable musical juggernaut. It moved swiftly to Broadway where it remained for 12 years, earning almost every award known to theater including four Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize.
Since that time, I have seen this MTV version of Puccini’s beautiful opera “LaBoheme” four times — three professional productions and the current South Bend Civic Theatre offering which opened last weekend and will run through Aug. 8 — as well as the film version which featured most of the original cast. The multiple viewings were not because I was so enamoured of the show that I had to see it again and again. (And there are shows about which I definitely feel that way.) Rather it was so that (a) I might be able to understand the lyrics which, for the most part, still remain a mystery; (b) that I could find at least one memorable melody (and I do NOT consider the second act opener “Seasons of Love” memorable, just unrelenting rather like the title song from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s monochromatic “Aspects of Love”); and (c) that I could find an emotional connection with any of the characters. They are, after all, cold, hungry, addicted, impoverished, angry and lonely and many are fatally ill. I’m still looking.
The setting is the lower East Side of Manhattan in the days of rampaging HIV/AIDS. The characters are struggling artists —musicians, dancers, filmmakers, singers— all estranged from their biological families who find another family in their fellow residents of Alphabet City. It is Christmas Eve and the atmosphere is bleak. The leading characters Mark (John Raab), a filmmaker, and Roger (Alex Leachman), a musician, are facing eviction by their landlord and former friend Benjamin (Benny) Coffin III (John Michels). Mark’s lover Maureen (Stephanie Salisbury), a performance artist, has left him for JoAnne (Laurisa Le Sure), a lawyer, while Roger, who lost his girlfriend to suicide, is searching for one great song. He meets the love of his life Mimi (Amada Revero-Aguero), an exotic dancer, when the lights go out. Another friend Collins (Josh Griffin) finds his significant other in Angel (Fernando Gonzalez), a street drummer and drag queen. The outlook for all is less than optomistic, but they soldier on, mostly always in high gear vocally, with a decibel level consistent with that of a rock concert. It is to the credit of the young cast that they can deliver the nearly non-stop high energy belt requirements of the show, which contains very few lines of spoken dialogue. The South Bend cast boasts some excellent voices, namely Raab, Leachman, Salisbury, Revero-Aguero, Griffin and Gonzalez plus ensemble soloists Steve Salisbury, Stephanie Berry, Anna Barncord and Kathleen Raab. They all do better with lyrical diction than most of the casts I have seen, but much of the significant “dialogue” still remains a mystery.
Technical director David Chudzinski delivers an imaginative set which utilizes well every inch of the Warner Theatre stage and the six piece orchestra, under the direction of keyboardist Anthony Beer, is (finally!) completely supportive without being overpowering Director David Case keeps the multi-level action moving and I was thankful for the program notations of location and action preceding each musical scene which gave brief indications of what was going on and who was doing what. I still prefer Puccini.
“RENT” plays Wednesday through Sunday and Aug. 4-8 in the Warner Theatre in the SBCT at 403 N. Main St. South Bend. For show times and reservations, call 234-1112 noon to 6 p.m. weekdays or visit www.sbct.org.