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'Rent' Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson

Now onstage at The Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford, Ontario

Credit: Jordy Clarke. L-R: Robert Markus, Kolton Stewart and members of the company of Rent

Geoffrey Coulter, Guest Writer, Actor and Arts Educator

The Stratford Festival’s production of “Rent” is a vocal and visual pleasure!

What the musical lacks in its paper-thin plot, it more than makes up for in its superbly talented, energetic, and enthusiastic cast and highly creative artistic team. This is not the mega-musical that was last season’s hot ticket, “Chicago.” There are no big numbers with non-stop belting and eye-popping, impossibly athletic choreography. This is a rock musical with mostly hard singing, power duets, and strong acting performances by a committed ensemble.

Sadly, with so much vocal talent on display, there are few memorable songs to lend their talents to.

Regardless, they’re each invested in as much of their thinly sketched characters as possible. Jonathan Larson’s book leaves gaps in the story arc of most of the characters, assigning muddy resolutions and nebulous futures to their fortunes. Throw in some wordy, sometimes unintelligible lyrics, and you’re left with a dissatisfying ending of plot holes and confusion.

But the production is terrific!

Based on Puccini’s opera ‘La Boheme’, the story is simple enough. It’s Christmas Eve in New York’s East Village circa the early 1990s. We join several young bohemian artists facing eviction from their dilapidated loft. Each character longs for love, fame and artistic expression while wrestling personal demons of substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment, and the HIV/AIDS crisis. Though the AIDS crisis that plagued the era date the show, its concept of love, friendship and living life on your terms is as germane today as it was three decades ago.

Thom Allison’s direction is solid and visually spot-on. He expertly places his actors on Brandon Kleinman’s fantastic multi-level gritty tenement set, ensuring audiences never miss any of the action. I always knew where scenes were playing out, an apartment, on the street, in traffic, at a restaurant. Coupled with Marc Kimelman’s expressive story-telling choreography, this duo produces a seamless narrative.

Michael Walton’s lighting evokes the LED frenzy of a rock concert yet poignantly softens the mood with well-placed spots and patterns projecting the “seasons” of love. Ming Wong’s costume designs are suitably era specific though some of the ensemble’s outerwear, though drab, seemed strangely pristine and untrodden for unemployed panhandlers. Musical direction by Franklin Brasz nicely underscores and never over-powers the voices. Nonetheless, there were times my companion and I agreed it was hard to understand some of the lyrics and dialogue. Larson’s wordy lyrics or sound designer Joshua D. Reid’s mixing and balance?

This is a master class in ensemble acting. Every cast member is given a chance to shine and be seen. Though there are no real lead actors, several stand-out performances bear mentioning. As budding filmmaker Mark, Robert Markus convincingly captures the geek with a voice as clear as a bell in a role that doesn’t nearly challenge his vocal prowess. Kolton Stewart is in fine vocal form as Roger, but a bit one-note playing an artist living with HIV. Mimi Mascasaet is a standout, belting impossibly high notes in powerhouse ballads as unlucky drug abuser Mimi. Erica Peck flexes her vocals as impressively as the fiery Maureen, contrasting beautifully with the lusher performance of on-stage girlfriend Joanne, played by Olivia Sinclair-Brisbaine.

Dynamite performance comes from Lee Siegel as the imposing yet emotional Tom Collins coupled with Nestor Lozano Jr. as Angel, the HIV-positive drag queen with a heart of gold and sass to spare. Although their performance was high-spirited, I felt the flamboyance and ebullience of the character could have been taken up a notch to match Angel’s gorgeously outrageous outfits.

Though creativity abounds in this solid production (especially with the introduction of the potent AIDS quilt, memorializing the thousands of victims who’ve succumbed to HIV/AIDS), some directorial decisions had me flummoxed.

Act two opens with the cast lining up to sing the popular “Seasons of Love,” a number which seems curiously random and set apart from the rest of the action. Performers sing out, mainly oblivious to each other, soloists dropping character to acknowledge the audience’s enthusiastic applause. Then the action just continues. Equally confounding was the introduction of Mark’s culminating films projected on an expansive sheet up stage, featuring black and white snippets of the very show we’re watching in rehearsal! I felt strangely removed from the world of the show as the curtain call followed shortly after.

When “Rent” premiered on Broadway in 1996, it was a trailblazer, pioneering new forms of music in musical theatre with its high-emotion blend of pop and rock ballads. It bridged the gap between traditional musicals and the MTV generation. Younger people flocked to theatres to see themselves in these spaces and be heard. It paved the way for musicals to explore unconventional subject matter, changing how we experience them today.

Despite the script’s pitfalls, Stratford’s production respectfully honours the legacy of its origins and lovingly presents audiences with entertainment to spur emotion and challenging reflection.

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