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BWW Reviews: RENT - The Bohemian Life Lived Unintelligibly But With Verve at Toby’s

I confess to being something of a Rent newbie. Seen the movie, heard the album, saw La Boheme (the Puccini opera which loosely served as source for author Jonathan Larson's 1996 rock opera/musical). But I never drank the Kool-Aid. I haven't seen a dozen productions, couldn't begin to sing along, and still need some help from the context to grasp what's going on. The new production of the show at Toby's Columbia, which has big, big problems with the sound, is thus not ideal for the likes of me.

For true Rent-ophiles (like most of the press night audience, obviously) this would not be such a problem. To the contrary, most the audience was whooping and cheering and couldn't get enough (while meanwhile my companion, who, like me, was no Rent expert, and who concluded this production wouldn't help make her one, deserted, in frustration, after Act I).

The trouble is, with the sound situation, you can only count on picking up about 60% of the words. And the missing 40% may contain major exposition. Toby's Columbia is a theater-in-the-round. In some ways, particularly in a show like this, that's a great thing. There are moments when the songs call for the members of the ensemble to feed off each other's energy, and, with them perched on towers at the four cardinal points of the room, facing each other, you can feel the dynamic interplay. But on the other hand, this means that about half the lines sung by the major characters are going to be sung facing largely or wholly away from you. Add to that that the orchestra, though not inordinately loud, often drowns out key consonants in a lyric, no matter how well sung. The result: if the mikes aren't picking up and the sound system delivering every detail (and here they're not), words will be and are lost. If you basically know them already, that's no big deal. If you don't, it is.

And this is particularly frustrating because Rent is exactly the kind of production you very much want to see succeeding in a dinner theater context. It is far more challenging in both subject matter and treatment than most of what's produced in these venues. Jonathan Larson, the author and composer, clearly labored for years to pour everything he had and everything he thought about into this massive rock opera. And it's all there: social class, the nature of artistic creativity, the meaning of life, the difficulties of sustaining relationships, homosexuality, AIDS, and (this being a musical set in New York) real estate. Grownup stuff. It's good to see it here.

But better to hear it too. And let me hasten to add at once that intelligibility is the one and only problem with the voices. This group sings beautifully, to a man and woman. In fact I'd go so far as to say that every other thing about the performances is top-notch. The enthusiasm of the audience spoke to that.

And, however much or little you get of the lyrics, many of the ideas come through, perhaps even better in some ways. I think of this as a Hair for the Nineties; Hair, you'll recall, was subtitled The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. That label could equally be applied to Rent, which very explicitly concerns a youthful tribe as well: starving artists of various stripes residing, mostly squatting, in Alphabet City, all popping AZT, and panhandling, ripping off ATMs, and/or selling drugs, as opportunity presents, to stay alive, creative and mutually supportive.

Felonies notwithstanding, you know the tribe are the good guys because they get all the pep, the brio, and the razzamatazz, and they get to belt out the big choral numbers. You know that their erstwhile mate Benny (David Gregory), now a real estate developer, represents the road best not taken, because (although Larson never explains it well) Benny has some complicated scheme to leverage his status as both landlord and patron to the tribe to maximize his profits, and because he doesn't like bad publicity. So much for the bourgeois way!

Yet on the evidence Larson presents, the Bohemian way may not make much sense either if one's object is to create great art. Roger, a guitarist and rock singer (David Twomey), and Mark, his documentary film-maker roommate (Nick Lehan), are each struggling to achieve anything while they starve in a squat that lacks heat and, most of the time, power. Because of their privations and bad habits, over the course of a year, Roger manages to produce but one song and Mark a documentary about his tribe of whose quality we never learn. (The song at least has the power to sing the heroine, stripper-junkie Mimi (MaryLee Adams), back to life from death by exposure.)

But overarching this loom the existential questions posed by the brevity of our time on this planet and the difficulties of human relationships. Probably the most memorable song, "Seasons of Love," sounds the note of regret over the precisely and ominously quantified number of minutes in a year. Roger sings of his desire to achieve glory in the form of "one song before the sun sets," which seems likely to be all he will achieve; Angel, an infectiously amiable drag queen (portrayed with lively verve by Bryan Daniels), dies in painful detail, leaving everyone bereft and expressing their grief through pointless quarrels. And Mimi, as noted, nearly dies. Her revival causes the chorus to sing the über-anthem "Finale B," meant to be inspirational with the reminder that there is "no day but today."

Ok, so there's no happily-ever-after, and maybe not even a tomorrow. (The revived Mimi, for instance, apparently remains an HIV-positive addict, with the kind of prognosis that combination entails.) We're supposed to feel good about this why? And the only couple that seem to be able to make a relationship work without destructive quarrels are Tom Collins, a professor (Kevin McAllister), and Angel - who dies.

But if all that privation leads to loss rather than boosting creativity, isn't there something to be said for Benny's way? If mortality is the overwhelming reality, and artistic achievement is the goal, wouldn't adequate heat and nutrition and health care enhance that achievement? Shakespeare wrote disparagingly of "comfortless despair," which led a 19th Century wit to observe that he much preferred the comfortable variety. If, on Larson's showing, we pretty much have to deal with despair, and the comfortless sort is so very difficult and unproductive, wouldn't the comfortable sort - Benny's - have something to recommend it?

Well, these are nits to pick with the show, not the production. Every one of the actors and singers I've mentioned above, and some I haven't, are superb. In another similarity to Hair, Rent can be enjoyed less as a plotted play set to song than as a revue giving us tuneful and compelling musical snapshots of a world which (if we can afford the price of a ticket) we likely don't inhabit. When the show is taken that way, what are a few consonants among friends?

So my recommendation, if you are a newbie, is not to stay away, but to bone up on the show before you go. If you can't, go anyway, but prepare yourself to miss a lot. And plaudits to Toby's for taking this on.


Rent, by Jonathan Larson, through November 14 at Toby's the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044. 410-730-8311, Adult tickets $49-$52. Adult situations.




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