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The current touring production of Rent includes three members of the original 1996 cast.

(C) 2009, Joan Marcus

3 out of 4 stars


  • Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
  • Directed by Michael Greif
  • Starring Anthony Rapp
  • At the Canon Theatre in Toronto

I hate Rent .

I'd love to love the late Jonathan Larson's 1996 rock musical that transplants Puccini's La Bohème to the AIDS era.

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But every time I see it, inevitably in a theatre packed with screaming and adoring teenagers, I end up leaving more convinced than ever that this unfocused show is the least deserving winner of the Pulitzer Prize since Walter Duranty.

Ultimately, I can't get on board with a musical that preaches tolerance but is extremely narrow-minded; a show that was heralded for speaking to a new generation and then proves intellectually incoherent.

A quick word to the Rentheads: The production currently passing through Toronto is superior to the lacklustre tours that have visited in recent years. Not only does it feature many veterans of the Broadway production that closed in 2008, it even stars a few of the original cast: Anthony Rapp as videographer Mark, Adam Pascal as songwriter Roger, and Gwen Stewart as the big, black woman who belts the solo part in Seasons of Love , the show's great song.

But back to how much I hate the show. This was my fifth tour of duty and, despite entering with an open mind, I was once again grumbling by the end of the opening number. That would be the one in which Mark and Roger discover they are about to be evicted from the heatless East Village apartment where they've been squatting, but then proudly proclaim that they are not going to pay rent.

It's hard to get worked up about their struggle, however, because it has been constantly undercut by a series of concerned messages from their parents left on their answering machine. That particular escape route from pseudo-poverty is inexplicably left unexplored - hating one's loving mother is portrayed throughout the show as something natural and right and worth freezing for.

But the rent issue is really a red herring, anyway. Our proto-hipster protagonists have bigger fish to fry.

Mark is on a mission to figure out why he's the narrator of a musical in which absolutely nothing of interest happens to him, while Roger must struggle to get out of the funk he's in due to having AIDS and a late HIV-positive junkie girlfriend. He does that pretty quickly, allowing him to spend the last three quarters of Rent tediously breaking up and getting back together with his new HIV-positive, junkie girlfriend, Mimi (Lexi Lawson). (He's really got a type.)

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The supporting characters are marginally more interesting. Alas, Mark's performance-artist ex, Maureen (the quite funny Nicolette Hart), and her new girlfriend, Joanne (Merle Dandridge), also spend the show in a dull on-and-off relationship. Perhaps early audiences found find this fascinating because they're a bisexual and a lesbian, but in 2010 we need more reason to care.

The only affecting relationship here is between Angel (Justin Johnston), the sweet drag queen, and his cyber-prophet boyfriend, Tom Collins (Michael McElroy). Their love affair in the shadow of AIDS is the heart of the show and should have been its focus, but ultimately is only a sacrificial subplot to the straight-boy angst.

Rent has never been celebrated for its plot, however, but for its depiction of a vibrant subculture of outcasts who reject consumerism and society's norms.

But what do these self-identified modern Bohemians really believe in, anyway? In the catchy act one finale, La Vie Bohème , they try to articulate a coherent credo - and fail miserably. In this long rhapsody to Bohemia, they celebrate "curry vindaloo" and "Maya Angelou" and raise a glass "to loving tension, no pension, to more than one dimension, to starving for attention" - lyrics that seem to have been written by simply flipping through a rhyming dictionary.

More random rhymes follow ("To German wine, turpentine, Gertrude Stein" ) along with occasional bald contradictions ("to apathy... to empathy") and a list of things New Yorker readers like, too ("To Sontag, to Sondheim, to anything taboo").

What always really gets me about this scene, however, is when Angel jumps up on the table in his sexy Santa suit and sings a brief paean to "handcrafted beers made in local breweries."

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Say what you will about the tenets of Hair 's hippiedom, at least it was an ethos; reading the lyrics alone, Rent could be mistaken for a satire. But there's precious little self-awareness among the countercultural characters, and Larson and director Michael Greif's depict them reverently as brave defiers of the status quo.

Meanwhile, any of the characters who are deemed "mainstream" - whether it's Benny the yuppie, the faceless police officers who roam the stage, or those well-meaning parents - are drawn two-dimensionally and become the subjects of mockery. So of course this musical appeals to teenagers. What's embarrassing is that a Pulitzer jury of adults fell for these rebels without a clue.

Rent runs until Jan. 24.

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