BWW Review: RENT in Ottawa - Vive la Vie Bohème!
Broadway Across Canada has finally brought the much anticipated 20th Anniversary Tour of Jonathan Larson's acclaimed rock opera, Rent, to Ottawa. Rent is loosely based on the classic Puccini opera, La Bohème but, instead of 1890s Paris, Larson's scene is set in the gritty back alleys of New York's Alphabet City at Christmastime in the early 1990s.
We meet the two main protagonists, who are down on their luck. Mark (Cody Jenkins) is an aspiring filmmaker and Roger (Coleman Cummings) is a former musician. They live in a slum apartment, burning items in a steel trash can for warmth. Mark's girlfriend, Maureen (Kelsee Sweigard), left him for a woman named Joanne (Samantha Mbolekwa). Roger's girlfriend, April, committed suicide after she discovered that both she and Roger had contracted AIDS. To make matters even worse, Mark and Roger are about to be evicted by their former friend and roommate, Benny (Jason Taylor Smith), who recently purchased the building with the intention of converting it into a high-tech cyber arts studio.
Surrounded by death and despondency and, faced with their own mortality, Mark and Roger set out to leave their individual legacies; Mark, by creating a documentary film and Roger, by writing one last great song.
Roger meets Mimi (Aiyana Smash), an exotic dancer with a drug addiction. Even though sparks fly, Roger pushes Mimi away, because of both her lifestyle and his own illness, which he cannot bring himself to disclose ("I Should Tell You"). Eventually, against his better judgment, Roger falls for her.
Meanwhile, Maureen stages a protest over the planned cyber arts studio with a performance art piece ("Over the Moon"), the show's only truly comedic moment, gleefully executed by Sweigard.
Along the way, we meet a cast of eccentric characters, most notably Angel (Joshua Tavares), a flamboyant drag queen, and Tom Collins (Shafiq Hicks), his partner. Angel found Collins injured in the alleyway after an attempted mugging and vows to care for him, in a tender scene ("I'll Cover You"). The scenes between Tavares and Hicks were touching and utterly captivating in their sincerity.
The stage consisted of a series of ladders and platforms of varying levels, meant to represent the back alley of an apartment block. The cast was constantly moving, keeping the story flowing with their energy. The crowded stage helped evoke the chaos of the surroundings and the desperation of the characters.
Despite some issues with the sound that made it frustratingly difficult to make out lyrics, the cast had outstanding vocal talent. Standout tracks included "La Vie Bohème", "Over the Moon", and, of course, fan favourite, "Seasons of Love". Many of the cast members are making their debuts on the national stage, but you would never be able to tell from the calibre of their performances. Specifically, Tavares, Smash, and Sweigard each gave exceptional performances. Of special note, Rayla Garske's solo vocals in "Seasons of Love" were sensational.
Over the course of a year (or 525,600 minutes), the story unfolds around this series of complicated, interwoven and sometimes tragic relationships to convey a message of friendship, love, loss, and how to make sense of what life throws at you by seizing every opportunity. Overall, it is easy to see why this show has a cult-like status and how it can effortlessly fill the house over twenty years later.
This show is highly recommended but, due to the subject matter, it may not be suitable for younger audiences. For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://ottawa.broadway.com/shows/rent/.