If ever there were a version of "Rent" your grandmother could approve of, Musical Forum's version starting tomorrow night would most definitely not be it. With sex, drugs and rock ‘n' roll, the Forum unleashes a monster of a production on the world.
Jonathan Larson's classic musical follows the highs and lows of eight avant-garde friends living in New York's Alphabet City during the height of the AIDS epidemic at the end of 1990s. It tells the story of romantic meet-cutes in abandoned lofts and friendships that can survive the threat of disease, eviction and poverty — as well as those that can't. "Rent" shows suffering on the winter streets of New York City for what it was. "So many people were dying, and nobody was talking about it," said Chantel Whittle '12, director of the production. "Until finally, someone was willing to."
Whittle's interpretation looks at the musical through a very serious lens, taking a show that has been accused of being dated and reworking it for a new audience. The production removes the sentimentalities that colored previous versions — stripping down the musical to a bare-bones version that focuses on the relationships between the characters.
The production takes the darker facets of the show that have always been implicit and makes them explicit through blocking, dance, tone and design. The set, lights and costumes all communicated this message in a cohesive manner that brought the overall show and each member of the company together.
The roles of the two loft renters, Mark (Brian Cross '12) and Roger (Ben Freeman '13), and the erstwhile drug-addicted dancer Mimi (Nora Rothman '13) are expertly executed, making up the serious core of the show. Cross manages to finesse Mark's struggle with isolation into a believable journey towards connection, while Freeman's incredibly versatile vocal and acting range allows him to hit Roger's every note. Rothman also achieves great success, but she seems to play the audience hot and cold. Her more serious second act leaves chills — especially her explicit depiction of Mimi's drug use — but some of her other scenes never heated up past a sustained lukewarm.
The two other relationships driving the show are between Maureen (Alexis Aurigemma '13) and Joanne (Madeleine Heil '13) and Collins (Malcolm Shanks '11.5) and Angel (Raques McGill '13). These two relationships provide a solid balance between lighthearted humor and deathly seriousness that helps ground the show and bring relief from the conflict of the other characters. McGill, in particular, is a pleasure to watch on stage, where he bewitches the audience with his ability to move, act and sing with seeming effortlessness.
The ensemble also acts as a strong backbone, complementing the principles at every turn. No number is left undeveloped as their incredible vocal talents and deep investment in the show shine through their performances. The ensemble's dancing also makes a significant impact — though it sometimes steals attention from the main action.
The members of the ensemble — and the company as a whole — make excellent use of the space provided, even venturing into the audience at times.
Overall, the depth of this production refuses to be stifled. Its strength and total investment has the power to bring tears and laughter, fear and love. Whittle's interpretation makes unexpected connections between the cast and the audience and brings to life a musical often cited as a phenomenon. As ensemble member Ariana Claderone '13 said, "This production does Jonathan Larson justice."
* * * *
(four out of five stars)
Intensity and humor converge in Musical Forum's latest production.
A previous version of this article attributed the quote "This production does Jonathan Larson justice" to Annie Kocher '14. The words were said by Ariana Claderone '13. The Herald regrets the error.