Fiddlehead Theatre Company brings Rent to the Back Bay Events Center this February 2016, a celebration of the Jonathan Larson musical’s twentieth anniversary. They assemble some stunning talent to fill the large stage and auditorium, especially Scott Caron’s reflective Mark Cohen, Katie Howe’s expressive Maureen Johnson, and John Devereaux’s emotive Tom Collins. Director Stacey Stephens makes the musical a celebration and examination of the 1990s New York City living. The production, however, fails to resonate; not being a Rent-head, I didn’t see the appeal of returning to a bohemian way of life. As usual, I connected with Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia’s level-headed Benjamin Coffin III, and I wondered why we needed a Rent revival to prove my point of the skewed perspective of living life within this iconic musical.
Scenic Designer Paul Tate Depoo III transforms the Back Bay Events Center into a cool steel apartment and living space, mixed with the flexibility to serve the other locations for this musical across Manhattan. The levels are a nice touch, but they are not used nearly enough and they are skewed stage right that limits the actors’ use. Stacey Stephens doubles as Costume Designer and Director, and, as usual, infuses his characters with the appropriate layers in his direction and costuming. From denim jean jackets to the apt use of accessories to the “grunge” look, the actors look like a Polaroid-perfect display of the personality and culture during this period. The set and costumes become our lens into this time before iPhones (though, surprisingly, a lot of these characters have cell phones in 1996) and laptops. Before Tinder, we had the Life Café and Life Support meetings. And relationships and connecting into our lives and others are the lifeline of this musical.
At its heart, we have Mark Cohen (played with wonderful charm by Scott Caron), a Jewish-American videographer and our protagonist, as he dissects his daily life through the documentary film that he is trying to create of life in the East Village. His roommate, Roger Davis (played with sullen brashness by Matthew Belles), has bigger problems: his girlfriend killed herself after writing a note that both of them have AIDS. Many of the characters feel the ticking of time before life catches up with them: Roger; their friend, Tom Collins (played with gorgeous emotive energy by John Devereaux); Mimi Marquez (played as a one-dimensional sex kitten by Ryoko Seta); and Angel Dumont Schunard (played with exciting twinkle in his eye by Jay Kelley), all of whom suffer from AIDS. Meanwhile, Maureen Johnson (played by the dynamic and scene-stealing Katie Howe), Mark’s former-girlfriend, turned bisexual lover with Joanne Jefferson (played with perfect snark by Brandi Porter) and avant-garde performance artist, protests the latest real estate project by Benjamin Coffin III (played with generous empathy by Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia), a former friend. This production’s plot moves in so many different directions, from the emerging love between Tom and Angel, to Joanne and Maureen’s bickering relationship to the avoidant Roger being pursued by the sexual Mimi, all overshadowed by AIDS and the evolving socio-economic landscape in New York City. Even by today’s standards, this musical is a mess in its plot structure, yet, it all works, especially under Stacey Stephens’ even direction.
What doesn’t work is Seta’s Mimi, and that is a big problem. Having recently reviewed La Boheme at the Boston Lyric Opera, I had to reflect on the importance of Mimi and Rodolfo (Roger) and their relationship at the heart of the opera (and musical). Both Puccini and Larson spend an enormous amount of time focusing on the turbulent courtship and relationship between these two characters; their chemistry is crucial for the audience’s appreciation of some of the opera and musical’s scenes and songs. And here’s where this production of Rent fails to impress. Their Mimi is just not up to snuff. She is a wonderful dancer, but she is not a Mimi who can carry iconic songs such as “Light My Candle,” “Out Tonight,” or “Without You.” She sings parts of “Without You” with the appropriate yearning, but she doesn’t add to this role and its complexity. Her scenes with Belles’ Roger are a struggle with neither actor connecting with each other on an emotional level, and, yet, we, as an audience, need to invest in the hope and potential for their relationship. So, we look elsewhere.
Luckily, other actors bring surprisingly compelling work. Devereaux’s Tom Collins and Kelley’s Angel was some of the most palpable and unique chemistry in recent memory, especially during their “I’ll Cover You.” Dereveaux delivers force and vulnerability in his reprise in Act II. Howe’s Maureen and Porter’s Joanne also have a great flair and energy about them, both compelled and repulsed by each other; opposites attract and they form a stunning power between them, especially during their “Take Me or Leave Me.” Howe’s performance during “Over the Moon” was one of the most confident and unabashed performances; she is unapologetic in her strange and expressive gestures and sounds. Caron carries the show, a noteworthy feat, given that many Marks fall into a trap of whininess and stagnation; Caron’s Mark has a fire inside him, which burns brighter in each scene.
The ensemble, notably Lydia Ruth Dawson’s Alexi Darling, offer some nice featured cameos and supporting sound, especially in “Will I?” and “Seasons of Love.” Yet, their presence felt lacking somehow, not from talent but focus. Perhaps we are too far removed from #OccupyWallStreet. Perhaps they lacked the right direction to make the musical resonate with millennial during an election year. The musical almost demands respect for its original material and to push us forward as a society in a similar way to how Larson imagined his musical’s premiere. Now, with musicals like Hamilton and a cliché trope of bohemian artists, we are not surprised or shocked by seeing these characters on our stages, characters that push our conception of how others see and experience life. The Fiddlehead Theatre Company’s production of Rent felt safe, a celebration concert rather than a true exploration of these characters’ lives and circumstances. I wanted to see how we can understand and respect these characters twenty years later, and how much more work we still have to go. Have we got there? Are we still renting and leasing life on a day-to-day basis, or have we finally bought into something more fulfilling?