BWW Review: RENT Kicks Off a Season of Love with Broadway Across Canada
Broadway Across Canada has kicked off their season in Calgary with a story of love, found family, and survival.
RENT tells the story of six New York artists struggling to survive at the end of the millennium. Mark and Roger, are roommates and Mark's ex Maureen has scheduled a protest against their former roommate Benny who now owns the building and is planning to evict the tenants to build a cyber arts studio. Maureen's new girlfriend Joanne stage manages and struggles with her feelings for the wildly outgoing Maureen. Roger meets Mimi, a dancer and drug addict who brings him back to life after losing hope to an AIDS diagnosis; a trait he shares with their other former roommate Tom Collins, how falls in love with Angel, a young drummer and drag queen who brings the whole group together to teach them about love. With a plot so complicated, it could be an opera (Puccini's La Bohéme), RENT is also a classic and one dear to many theatre-lovers' hearts. Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson, this 20th Anniversary tour is a story that speaks to audiences young and old.
The first thing the audience sees when they walk into the theatre is the set. It is the first impression and the only teaser for what's to come. The tour features a set design by Paul Clay that is both familiar and new. Everything is steel beams and sharp edges, pulling us into the converted factory apartment that is our main setting. I love when actors can climb all over the set and jump around without my fearing for their safety as I sit in my seat, too far away to save their lives. So I thank Paul Clay for putting my mind at ease while creating a few dozen opportunities for physical creativity within the set.
On a more personal note: I'm not sure who was in charge of setting the snow, or if there was a technical malfunction, or simply a limitation of the theatre, but I laughed out loud when it "began to snow" and I don't think I was supposed to. And then I was distracted by the snow for the rest of the scene. As frustrating as it is, I rarely want to notice things like lighting or special effects unless they are the genuine focus of the moment. So when I notice that the lighting (especially in act one) was almost too dark to see unless it was too bright, or the snow fell in a weird pattern, I find it disruptive to the story as a whole but can't reconcile if it was a one night blip or if it was a design choice. So I will lay my concerns out and move on to other things.
We begin the show with a close up of Mark, our pseudo-narrator, who introduces us to the world and some of the key players. Played by Cody Jenkins, that sweater-clad film maker sets the tone for the rest of the show - not an easy task. Though there was a bit of a rocky start, Jenkins had a wonderful blend of fatalistic humor and loud angst that I have come to expect. He held his own incredibly well.
His scene partner, however, left me wanting more. Roger is a sad character. He is the definition of brooding for most of the first act and much of the second, only showing glimmers of light when he and Mimi are in a good emotional place in their relationship (which isn't often). I understand that he is not an easy character to play, but I was missing something from Coleman Cummings's performance. There was a numbness in his expressions, even as he sang his lover back to life. I was missing heart in Cumming's performance. It wasn't enough for me that he sang Roger so well.
His girlfriend, Mimi, was one of the characters that stole the show. From her first entrance, through "Out Tonight" and the glitter bomb, and the subtle changes as her character grew weaker, Aiyana Smash blew me away. "Out Tonight" is a vocally demanding song plus she never stops moving, climbing and kicking and hanging upside down through the entire number. But she never showed it. Smash was an amazing Mimi from beginning to end.
My other favourite was Shafiq Hicks' performance as Tom Collins, the MIT professor with a rebellious streak. I got chills all throughout his rendition of "I'll Cover You (Reprise)", and there was a gentle calmness that made a wonderful contrast to the other rebels running and shouting. His partner Angel (played by Joshua Tavares) also had some wonderful moments.
Note: the show uses both "he" and "she" pronouns for Angel and I will be using exclusively "she" when discussing the character and "he" when discussing Tavares' performance.
Angel is the heart of the show. Period. Her ability to understand the world and still be kind and have hope is message worth broadcasting around the world. More often than not, I really enjoyed Tavares' interpretation of the character. I wish to see a performance of "Today 4 U" where I am both wowed by their talent and don't fear that they will pass out from exhaustion but that day was not today. But when he had a chance to catch his breath and sing out, I loved Tavares' voice and little character quirks.
Making up the rest of the leading cast were Juan Luis Espinal as Benjamin Coffin III, Samantha Mbolekwa as Joanne Jefferson, and Kelsee Sweigard as Maureen Johnson. All incredibly well suited for their roles, and amazing voices to boot.
I am a sucker for a dance break, and though Marlies Yearby's choreography highlighted the dancers and showed off the incredible talent in the cast, I almost thought it was too much movement. While I was watching the dancing, I would miss lines of dialogue or blocking that was meant to be the focus of the scene. The way she laid out the "Tango Maureen" didn't make sense to me. The dancers were incredible. I liked that the ensemble was able to display their abilities through Yearby's work. I have trouble reconciling the type of show RENT was trying to be.
I turn to director Evan Ensign to understand their vision for the story. What is the message? What is the world we're living in? Beyond the messages written into the script of found family and true artistry, there is also a question of how much the audience is involved and how much do or should the actors be bringing them in to their world.
How much of RENT is a "musical" where song and dance are hyper-realistic and everyone is in on that realization, and how much of the story is just humans interacting with each other while the audience acts as voyeurs? I felt a mix of both in this show and that didn't make a lot of sense to me. I lost some empathy trying to figure it out.
I pose these questions to a show like RENT because it is so well known. Even if you've never seen it, you know the songs, and the characters. They are a part of the musical theatre culture and beg for ingenuity, understanding, and familiarity all in one. And while I followed this performance well, I wanted more because there is the capacity for more.
The entire cast of the RENT tour was strong. Their vocals were tight (especially the growing chorus of homeless singing "Christmas Bells are Ringing"), their dancing was clean, and some of those costume changes were insanely fast but you hardly noticed.
The incredible ensemble included:
Zare Anguay - Paul, and others
Michael Ferlita - Gordon, and others
Rayla Garske - Bag Lady, Soloist, and others
Lexi Greene - Mark's Mom, and others
Ysabel Jasa - Alexi Darling, and others
Benjamin H. Moore - Caroler, Pastor, and others
James Schoppe - Squeegee Man, Waiter, and others
This was an amazing show. The talent was stellar and it was exactly what I expected to see when I walked into the theatre. Perhaps I wanted a little more but what I got was genuinely awesome and should touch the heart of every "Rent-head".
RENT will be performing at the Southern Jubilee Auditorium until September 15th 2019 before moving on to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, BC. For more information, visit www.rentontour.net.