RENT / Mac-Haydn Theater
THE 1996 MUSICAL “RENT” WON a Pulitzer, a Tony, had a 12-year Broadway run, and was made into a movie! It must be great, no? No. It has not survived its era well.
Of course, every era needs to notice and celebrate its striving artists. Striving artists are a minority that often cultivates “difference”–a difference that fascinates and annoys the rest of the population. The “RENT” plot acknowledges the drugs, sex, disease and poverty while it exposes some of the more lovable aspects of a group of friends who are surviving marginally in lower Manhattan.
But few eras were anything like the eighties (the brewing years for “RENT” ). It was a period bloated with the horror of HIV/AIDS and ripe for the brave and full emergence of homosexuality from its hiding places. Certain things desperately needed exposure, and “RENT” dragged them out and gave them words and notes.
Fortunately for “RENT” Jonathon Larson, who wrote the music and lyrics, hitched its existence to a zeitgeist whose time had arrived, and therefore it reaped many rewards.
Using a folk-rock idiom and recitative to say its piece seemed very hip and innovative at the time. Now, not so much.
On opening night in Chatham, the cast’s basically good voices (Mac-Haydn always hires good voices) were relentless. What at the beginning of the evening seemed like interesting use of a particular musical idiom, by the end of the evening seemed more like caterwauling. A score that stays too rigidly within a narrow set of tempos (moderately fast) and a particularly narrow dynamic (loud) eventually invites the listener’s attention to drift away.
The Baroque vocal tradition of decorating a melody improvisationally (employed often to wonderful effect by African-American church choirs) here seemed way too pitch-sloppy. (There was, however, a moment where a chorus member improvised her way up to a note I think may have been a high B-flat above high B-flat! An impressive if freaky achievement.)
The singers’ habit of “spreading” a vowel and pressing and squeezing it to erase any suggestion of vibrato often resulted in old-fashioned flatting.
It is easy for a hearer to weary of the lowered seventh (a half step below the “ti” that leads to “do”); and the score’s use of repetition, repetition, repetition (motifs and accompaniment figures) becomes downright irritating.
Fortunately, we get to look at the beautiful Hillary Fisher (as Mimi), and admire the high energy of Laura Helm (Maurine), who delivers it with such effortlessness. (At one point, Maurine moons the audience; and when Helm pours herself into a cat-woman-like body stocking, her remarkable rear end becomes the star of early Act II.) We get a strong characterization and a too-short soft and touching moment from Rasheem Ford as Angel’s lover. We get to look at 20 handsome young people lined up to sing the anthem of the evening; and especially we get the sweetness and absence of anger offered by Pierre Marais as the transvestite, Angel. (Costumer Allison Schmidt knew what she was doing when she dressed him in a Santa jacket, oddly textured leggings, high heels, and topped him with daisies in his hair.)
Perhaps we’ll get to get to hear these people sing a better score. WEST SIDE STORY is coming!
RENT runs through June 28. Go on line at machaydntheatre.org for the full season’s list.