By Jennifer Ives
“RENT”, a play with rich roots in the LGBTQ community, has returned to Boston for a few weeks, and while it will satisfy any longtime fans, it fails to wow or command its audience.
“RENT” follows a group of young activists and artists in New York City in the ‘80s as they struggle with unemployment, AIDS, and personal ethics and relationships in the face of economic woes. It premiered in 1996, and was written by Jonathan Larson, who loosely based it on the well known opera “La Bohème”. It won a Tony during its original run and is the 11th longest running musical ever.
This 20th Anniversary production is produced by the Fiddlehead Theatre Company, which is taking its shows on the road this season with the hopes of reaching larger audiences. While the Fiddlehead performance of “RENT” is a perfectly serviceable production, featuring a diverse cast and excellent audio system, it sadly is somewhat lacking overall.
Many of the main actors seem somewhat resigned in their performances, and fail to bring the young and vibrant energy that their characters are known for. An example of this is the character of Mimi Marquez, a young exotic dancer living with (not dying of) AIDS and a cocaine addiction, who is played by Ryoko Seta, a classically-trained ballerina with a long list of acting and performance credentials.
Seta brings the emotional vulnerability requisite for the character, but somehow fails to interject the emotional turbulence the character experiences into her intonation and body language. Many of the other actors seem to experience similar issues hitting the right notes emotionally, while still managing to strike the right notes musically, as it were.
Many people are familiar with “RENT” primarily through its 2005 theatrical adaptation starring Anthony Rapp, Idina Menzel, and Rosario Dawson. One of the perks of seeing an actual production of it, however, is the chance to experience some of the musical numbers that didn’t make it into the final theatrical cut, and to experience the musical in the order in which is was originally intended. The stage production of “RENT” is far less sly in its blunt portrayal of drug usage and addiction, the sex lives of individuals in the LGBTQ community, and the horror of AIDS and death.
The most successful scene of the whole play, in my opinion, is that of Angel’s death. Angel, played by Jay Kelley, is a drag queen with a heart of gold, who is presented center stage begging for death in a hospital bed, while surrounded by half-dressed couples lit in an eerie red glow who by turns seem to be engaging in desperate sex, or slowly heaving in their own final death throes.
The scene does an amazing job highlighting the fears and ties so prevalent in the LGBTQ community at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and is the gem of Kelley’s whole performance.
All in all, despite the occasionally flat emotional performances of some of the actors, “RENT” is a fun trip down memory lane for longtime fans of the show, and a decent introduction to an essential piece of LGBTQ creative history for new viewers.
Additionally, Nathan Urdangen, the conductor and pianist of the five-piece orchestra, is perhaps the secret highlight of the whole show, barely visible on the right side of the stage dancing and bobbing along to the music, and thoroughly enjoying himself the entire time.
“RENT the Musical” is playing at the Back Bay Performance Art Center on February 19, 20, and 21. Tickets are available online or at the box office.