One stage is nearly bare, constructed of metal pipes and plywood. The lighting sharply illuminates the actors' faces — faces seemingly too fresh to dig into the hearts of the characters they portray. They are dressed in black, they wear the same sandals on their feet — only the subtlest of details give them some recognizability. A worn leather jacket, a feathered boa, a video camera. The music soars, and voices rise to meet notes sometimes just beyond their grasp. And then suddenly you are lost in the simplicity of a story so well-known and loved that it's okay if everything isn't perfect. Because isn't that part of the play's message anyway?
The other stage, 200 miles away in New York City, is almost unrecognizable as an actual stage. You are in Mark and Roger's living room. You are on the streets of Manhattan. The actors walk you through a set of sparkling Christmas lights and snow-covered alleyways dressed head-to-toe in Alphabet City perfection. Their pitch is flawless, their hair is gelled just so and suddenly you find yourself as far removed from the story as possible. Sometimes, it turns out, less is a whole lot more.
Last semester, Musical Forum's production of "Rent," Jonathan Larson's soulful beast of a musical, threw out everything but the kitchen sink in its beautiful retelling of the rock opera. This past August, New York City's Off-Broadway venue New World Stages produced a revival that packed quite a punch of glitz and a double dose of glamor, but not nearly as much heart as Forum's.
That's not to say that Off-Broadway, or Broadway for that matter, should be discredited. Every production is different. Every actor has a strength and every director, a vision. Sometimes everything comes together and sometimes it doesn't. The rub is that student theater is often overlooked or disregarded simply because it is student theater.
For a musical like "Rent," which has captured so many people's adoration and become such a present entity in today's popular culture, it is easy to be critical. Finding flaws in casting, set design and execution is a quick and almost satisfying process. So was the case with New World Stages' revival.
While the talent of the actors is notable — especially the vivacious Arianda Fernandez as Mimi and Broadway alum Annaleigh Ashford as Maureen — the relationships between their characters seemed thin throughout the production.
For example, the love between Collins and Angel — generally such a driving, pivotal part of the musical — fails to entrance the viewer as it has in previous renditions.
While some may blame this on the cast being rather young and inexperienced — MJ Rodriguez, who plays Angel, is just 20 — I would venture to say it has less to do with age and more to do with the distracting nature of the set. Visually stimulating it may be on first sight, but as emotional intensity builds between the characters, it is sometimes hard to focus one's attention on the dialogue with the abundance of props and overzealous use of lighting.
There were also some questionable casting and styling calls. Matt Shingledecker is almost too pretty to play the gritty, rock-n-roll guitar player Roger. His perfectly spiked hair doesn't help paint the picture of a struggling, slightly dirty rogue of Alphabet City. Adam Chanler-Berat as Mark faces a similar struggle. He is too nice, too cute, too clean.
The production was enjoyable overall, with excellent vocals and new, fast-paced dance steps. But I could have easily listened to the soundtrack and been just as happy.
Musical Forum's production, directed by Chantel Whittle '12, featured a cast of incredibly strong young actors that did something their New York counterparts failed to do: ensnare the audience with grit rather than glitz.
Perhaps it was the setup of the stage — the audience surrounds the main stage in a horse shoe format with actors entering and exiting through the aisles — that contributed to the feeling of inclusion. It feels as though you are right there, a fly on the wall as the action happens around you. There is an immediacy to the action that makes each event seem urgent, necessary and unforgettable — a feeling only enriched by the quality of the acting.
Collins (Malcolm Shanks '12) and Angel's (Raques McGill '13) relationship does not lack for any emotions here. McGill in particular was fantastic, possessing both a down-to-earth quality inherent to the Angel character and an amazing ability to strut in heels.
Vocals were shaky for several cast members, but it did not detract from the story being told. The entire production appeared to be an ode to the relationships between the characters, stripping away all of the fluff to give a sometimes heart-wrenching look at the lives of these six people.
And therein lies the secret of student theater — it doesn't cost much, it doesn't always look like much, but it has a genuine quality to it that doesn't get lost in the rush to sell out a show at $100-plus per seat.
There's no need. Tickets are generally free.