- Title: Rent
- Book, music and lyrics by: Jonathan Larson
- Director: Thom Allison
- Actors: Nestor Lozano Jr., Lee Siegel, Robert Markus
- Company: Stratford Festival
- Venue: Festival Theatre
- City: Stratford, Ont.
- Year: Runs to Oct. 28, 2023
Are you a Rent skeptic?
The Stratford Festival’s terrific new production might just change your mind about – or open up your heart to – Jonathan Larson’s 1996 rock musical, which reimagined La Bohème in an AIDS-ravaged artistic community in New York.
It did that for me, anyway – a real surprise given I once went so far as to call the show “the least deserving winner of the Pulitzer Prize since Walter Duranty” in these very pages.
For the legions of resolute Rentheads out there, there should be no hesitation to book a ticket for this major Canadian revival directed by Thom Allison.
It includes many fresh and finely tuned depictions of the show’s well-known cast of characters tenuously housed in 1990s Manhattan – described to me by a local wit at the pub afterward as “the darkest-timeline Friends.”
The romance between Tom Collins (Lee Siegel), a computer-science professor with anarchic tendencies, and Angel (Nestor Lozano Jr.), the kind-hearted drag queen who finds him bleeding on the street after a mugging, has never been so swooningly depicted.
Siegel’s well-sung, achingly acted second-act reprise of I’ll Cover You was of those show-stopping moments that all the best Festival Theatre productions of musicals provide.
The on-and-off-again relationship between bisexual performance artist Maureen (Erica Peck) and lesbian lawyer Joanne (Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane), meanwhile, is a more comedic highlight – featuring particularly great onstage chemistry during their sizzling rendition of Take Me or Leave Me.
And Dear Evan Hansen alumnus Robert Markus finds a way through witty line readings, wailing singing and a refreshing lack of whine to actually bring to life the character of Mark – the straight, white, HIV-negative male filmmaker whose inexplicable centrality in Larson’s show can too often make it feel like cultural tourism.
Another truly reinvented performance comes from Andrea Macasaet as Mimi, fresh off her turn in Six on Broadway; she brings a sense of both punk rock and realism to her portrayal of an HIV-positive dancer struggling with addiction. The only thing that weakens her plot-line – and indeed the production – is Kolton Stewart’s uncertain performance as the songwriter Roger with whom Mimi ends up in another one of the show’s on-and-off relationships; here’s hoping he digs deeper over the course of the run.
Sometimes musicals are not well served artistically by decade-long runs on Broadway and endless North American tours. Direction and design can age faster than material does – and, indeed, something about Michael Greif’s original rock-concert staging of Rent quickly turned kitsch, leading to widespread parody.
Rent’s fanbase’s cultishness regarding the original cast, too, led to actors touring in the main roles well beyond believability – and a misguided 2005 movie based around them helped cement the impression that Larson’s show was of a time, rather than timeless.
Allison’s production, by contrast, comes at the material with the benefit of a quarter century of distance – and its palpable quality is that of love: Love for the youthful over-the-top characters even in their most blinkered moments; love for all the now deliciously dated jargon about “cyberspace”; and love for the less-than-perfect elements in the construction of the musical that Larson, who died suddenly from an aortic dissection the day before Rent had its first off-Broadway preview, never got to polish in subsequent shows.
The director has notably toned down a brattish quality sometimes evident in the material – so the chorus of middle-class moms and dads leaving endless messages on answering machines is no longer so annoying. Even La Vie Bohème, the main characters’ attempt to flip off the bourgeoisie, which instead comes across as more of a flip through the rhyming dictionary, works here by embracing the fact that this is a group of kids posing as cool and sexy and smart rather than delivering an intellectually coherent manifesto.
Scene after scene, Allison – better known as a musical-theatre performer but now coming out as a powerhouse director – does a great job digging behind the image of the show to find what’s really there, including, and this was particularly surprising to me, a coherent narrative (in the first act anyway).
The Festival Theatre‘s thrust stage brings Rent’s characters up close to the audience, too – this space was “immersive” before that artistic buzzword existed – and this forces performers to avoid caricature and cliché.
This is perhaps most apparent in Peck’s delivery of Maureen’s “over the moon” protest performance at a tent city in a parking lot where the unhoused are about to be violently evicted (topical, if you’re from Toronto); for once, this doesn’t seem like an overextended parody – but a piece of street art with a strong purpose and its own artistic integrity anchored by a self-aware sense of humour. An ingenious conjuring of two giant udders by the design team helps, too – as does emotion-forward choreography by Marc Kimelman (which is excellent throughout).
Of course, another thing going for this production of Rent is its contextualization within a well-curated repertory season, particularly alongside Casey and Diana, Nick Green’s new play, which looks back at a week in a Toronto AIDS hospice in 1991.
Having seen that moving memorial the night before, I could not walk into Rent and roll my eyes. By the time the cast brought out an AIDS quilt designed by Brandon Kleiman commemorating loved ones from the Stratford Festival community lost to the disease, I had already teared up multiple times. Oh god, don’t tell me I’m becoming a Renthead!