Have you ever felt attached to a person or a movie or a story without having ever seen or interacted with it? Believed in a theme simply because of the power behind the words? When I heard that the College Union Board (CUB) was sponsoring a trip to see the Jonathan Larson rock-musical RENT, I jumped at the chance to finally challenge my imagination.
Why should my imagination be sparked by a musical that has been around since I was in sixth grade? Simple. For most of my adolescence, I believed that musicals and plays were, simply put, uncool. It seems as though the drama crew is often seen as an eccentric and isolated group. Stage dramas were only for a certain type of person. Only after I became friends with many actors and actresses was I formally introduced to non-Shakespearean theater. Any preconceived notions about live performance acting died quickly.
I often laugh at people who write off theater as being too strange to go to. These are the same people who eat up the films of Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman and Natalie Portman, but are oblivious to the fact that they have all taken their turn on Broadway.
After realizing this and seeing the excitement inherent in theater experiences, I was introduced to the story of RENT – how the creator of the play wanted to create a story with rock music and modern themes to which today’s teenagers can relate. How the same visionary died shortly after finishing the final rehearsals. How the story featured character struggles ranging from financial difficulties (penniless college students should relate) to the acceptance of death and disease. I listened to the catchy cast recording of it dozens of times over the past few years, imagining how the play would look and how the characters would appear.
Finally, on Feb. 27, I got to compare the image I had developed in my head to the actual play. The end result? A spectacular human story that shows you don’t need elaborate sets of stunning visuals to drive home a message. RENT focuses on a group of 20-somethings living in New York, overcoming disease and poverty at the turn of the millennium. The play has won awards ranging from Tonys to a Pulitzer and many of its stars have crossed over into film.
The performance I was fortunate to see featured a cast of young rising talent, as headliner Drew Lachey had the day performance off. The stage was sparse, except for a monstrous tree constructed of garbage, which was different from what I originally imagined, as the play is set in New York. Initially, I was put off by some of the vocals – I was used to the original cast’s voices and Colin Hanlon, a newcomer to the character of filmmaker Mark, immediately annoyed me. I’ve had role-originator Anthony Rapp in my mind as Mark for so long that it was hard to accept this new take on the character. However, Hanlon came off as a believable college-aged guy, and his voice was less nasal than Rapp’s and I soon forgot about my preconceptions.
I wish I could say the same for Cary Shields, who played tortured musician Roger. I knew he was just an understudy, but his voice was too close to Hanlon’s, so they sounded too similar. Plus, the original Roger, Adam Pascal, had a voice that lent an edge to the character. I pictured him as more of a tough guy, brooding. Shields sounded too young and a tad whiney.
The only other person who kind of irked me was Kelly Karbacz as Maureen. Idina Menzel, who won a Tony in this role, has since moved on to fame in “Wicked.” Her Maureen sounded more like a radical than a ditz. But Karbacz dyed her hair blonde and acted the part. She came off like a trailer-park airhead.
Other performances meshed perfectly with the vision I had created over time. Karmine Alers as Mimi not only has the look for the character, but also the attitude, without the stuffy voice of the original Mimi. In a way, I liked Alers’ Mimi more. And the pivotal role of inspirational transvestite Angel was also played with grace and panache.
There definitely were more little things I didn’t expect, such as one character flashing another. Certain lines in the songs made more sense with the sparse-but-crucial exposition. But most importantly, the shiver-inducing wisdom in the play shines through a hundred times more when witnessing the emotional tornado in person. The beauty of RENT is that it has something for everyone: straight guys and girls, homosexuals, crossdressers, executives, bohemians, artists.
The characters and the actors who bring them alive are a cornucopia of races and shapes and colors that unite to drive home the message to live each day as though there is no other. The only thing more satisfying than seeing the show and hearing its message was realizing that in almost every way, RENT lived up to all my standards and expectations.