In early 2005 the movie version of Rent was released staring original Broadway cast members. I’ve never seen Rent live, therefore, all I have to go on for comparison is the movie, which I own and love. Adam Pascal, as Roger the musician, walks onstage first and picks up his guitar. He is followed by Anthony Rapp as Mark, the documentary film-maker. Each receive a warm applauded welcome. Both performers have been with the production since 1996 when it was an unknown, off-Broadway show. We see Mark, in the same burgundy and blue sweater he sported in the feature film version, kicking off the show because he also plays the narrator.
It’s Christmas eve in 1989 and roommates Roger and Mark expect a visit from their old roommate, and M.I.T philosophy professor, Tom Collins played by Michael McElroy. Tom is jumped on his way to Roger and Mark’s apartment and is found and coddled by none other than Angel Schunard, the transvestite, played by Justin Johnston who then invites him to a life support meeting. This is a story about the unconventional lifestyles of a group of friends and artists, a number of whom have contracted AIDS.
We begin with the title track, so to speak. “Rent” is performed by The Company and is simply an introduction of the story about to be told. They’re young, their poor, they’re not about to use their art to sell out, and everything in their lives is only theirs to rent. Time. Even love. Nothing can be obtained for good and nothing comes without a price or a known devastation down the road. For instance, we see Roger struggle almost the entire show with the inability to commit to Mimi due to fear, guilt, and despair.
On his way out to look for Collins, Mark invites Roger to come along but Roger of course refuses. Roger is crooning over his late girlfriend. I learned today that she killed herself. The revealing line that they left out of the movie goes something like this, ‘zoom in on Roger… grieving the loss of April who, after telling Roger “we have AIDS,” slit her wrists.’ Drug use initiated their disease. Whenever Mark narrates he starts by saying, “zoom in,” because the narration cleverly serves a two part purpose, one to inform the crowd and another to recount his filming.
Left alone in the apartment Roger performs his first solo number “One Song Glory.” It’s one of my personal favorites and Adam, a short spiked blonde from the long wavy dark-haired principal we saw in the movie, has Roger’s rock-band-front-man voice to nail it. Or, as the lyrics say, ‘pretty boy front man.’ That’s what he was. The song goes back and forth describing the life he had before AIDS and the life he now has. He had the girl of his dreams and the world at his feet. Now he hasn’t left his apartment in six months. He has difficulty finding meaning in anything enough to write it into a song. The little ditty he continuously plays is “Musetta’s Waltz” from La Bohème, the opera of which this production is a modern take on. It isn’t until he is pursued by his upstairs neighbor and club dancer, Mimi Marquez, that Roger begins to realize that, to paraphrase another song, life is his to miss if he doesn’t forget the regret. There is no other way to live but for today. Even then it takes some persistence on Mimi’s part. Roger shuns her until he finds out that she too has AIDS.
Mimi played by Lexi Lawson makes her first attempt at getting his attention with “Light My Candle.” This number was a little disappointing for me. Not one of my favorites to begin with, Lexi just could not compete with Rosario Dawson. Despite being a contestant on this season’s American Idol, leaving to pursue her musical theatre career, she just didn’t bring the powerful performance I was hoping for. I could say that, unlike the other female leads, Mimi’s songs are ballads but that’s not entirely true. Only “Without You” is the real ballad here. She could have brought down the house on “Out Tonight” and she didn’t. Every once in a while we got a taste of her vocal range but I felt that it diminished each time before reaching its stunning peak. As Randy would say, it just wasn’t right for me for her. With that being said, I will give her props for her dancing. She did an evocative night club dance bending and contorting herself over a stair railing to the extreme that I feared for her danger of falling.
Collins arrives the next day at Roger and Mark’s place escorting his new found partner Angel. Clad in drag Santa Clause attire, Justin performs “Today 4 U” with mesmerizing hilarity. This song clears up any Akita-Evita confusion one might have. A woman paid Angel to get rid of her neighbors irritant akita dog named Evita. This song describes how she played her drum sticks until the dog’s insanity level drove it to jump out the window: [It was my lucky day today on Avenue A/ When a lady in a limousine drove my way/ She said, “Darling, be a dear, haven’t slept in a year/ I need your help to make my neighbors yappy dog dissapear/ I believe if you play nonstop that pup/ Will breathe it’s very last high strung breath.”] It’s a little far fetched but very funny. A later reference tells us that the dog belonged to Benny, the landlord threatening to evict everyone.
Benny comes into the picture here for “You’ll See.” This song was moved in the movie as the one to follow “Rent.” I LOVE the way this is sung by Taye Diggs in the movie. I was very disappointed when I bought the soundtrack and this one was left off. Today, Jacques Smith as Benjamin Coffin III lived up to my expectations. Furthermore, he seems to have a larger part on stage than he does in the movie. In the movie he emerges for his few numbers but is more talked about than seen. Benny used to be the roommate of Roger, Mark, and Collins. After marrying wealthy, he now has dreams of building a recording studio. He tells his former friends to pay or pack, to which Angel replies, ‘that man needs Prozac.’
Maureen is Mark’s ex-girlfriend and an actress set to perform a protest against Benny’s plans to expel the homeless people from the city. This is New York City. Mark is called to rescue Maureen’s show from technical failure so he heads to the performance space to get her patched. When he arrives he is unpleasantly greeted by Heneefah Wood playing Joanne who is Maureen’s current partner and a public interest lawyer. Heneefah was phenomenal. Remember the powerful voice I said Lexi was lacking? Haneefah has it and she sings her heart out on “Tango: Maureen.” Maureen has called on both Mark and Joanne to handle her sound issues but doesn’t bother to meet them herself. This puts them in the awkward position of meeting each other without her. In “Tango: Maureen” Mark is sympathizing with Joanne and sharing his experiences of yearning for her but never feeling her full attention. Joanne tries to deny it but she can relate. They dance the tango in what looks like a three foot width of space. They do it well considering this part cannot compare to the movie. In the movie Mark daydreams taking us to a ballroom full of tango dancers with Maureen in red while everyone else wears black. Mark and Joanne share a few sequences with Maureen but she shares several with other dancers. Let’s not forget how Mark learned to Tango; from the ‘Rabbi’s daughter at the Jewish Community Center.’ The last name’s Cohen. Mark Cohen.
“Out Tonight” and “Another Day” blend into a nice medley. “Out Tonight” is Mimi’s second attempt to get Roger to pay her some attention and with “Another Day” he rejects her again: [Little girl/ Who do you think you are?/ Barging in on me and my guitar/ Another time/ Another place/ If you’re lookin’ for romance/ Come back another day]. And she can take her smack with her. Mimi has a drug habbit that she hasn’t yet attempted to kick. The Company takes a stand in Mimi’s defense and tries to convince Roger to live in the moment. He does eventually apologize and invites Mimi to go out for dinner with the gang after Maureen’s protest.
The cyber-studio protest is Maureen’s first scene. Nicolette Hart is playing Maureen. I expected this to be hilarious and astounding and it was. If you’re unfamiliar, I want to give you a glimpse of the comical sketch she draws for her fellow protesters: [Last night I had a dream/ I found myself in a desert called Cyberland/ It was hot/ My canteen had sprung a leak and I was thirsty/ Out of the abyss walked a cow–Elsie/ I asked if she had anything to drink/ She said, “I’m forbidden to produce milk”/ In Cyberland, we only drink Diet Coke.]
After the protest they all gather at the Life Café for a celebration and “La Vie Boheme (The Bohemian Life).” Again, if you haven’t a clue and you’re interested in knowing you should study the lyrics to this one. A general understanding is guaranteed without having heard the song before. You would, however, miss some of the subtle whit. Basically, with this song they justify any and all of their taboo behaviors and principals. We hear a throat clearing coming from a disapproving restaurant patron who observes Maureen and Joanne groping each other. ‘Hey mister, she’s my sister,’ is Maureen’s retort. Then Collins and Angel. ‘Brothers!’
Benny shows at the café as well. The song starts in objection to his statement, ‘This is Calcutta, Bohemia is dead.’ I don’t disagree with Benny. He’s saying that their Bohemian utopia doesn’t exist. He’s comparing New York City to the poverty of Kolkata. He’s trying to clean up a bad part of town and the kids are arguing to remain in their apartments even though they reside as squatters while making no money and, in fact, they don’t even attempt to make money. What’s wrong with Mark selling his film footage to Buzzline? His snobbish hesitance lies in the fact that Buzzline occasionally adopts pop culture headline news. Who cares if it pays the bills? Anyway, I feel like I’m getting worked up here. That’s all I have to say about it. I couldn’t give a shit about the sexual orientations. Who am I to say how one should live his or her life in that regard? So, they raise their glasses in honor of the death of Bohemia on the night when we celebrate the birth (remember, it’s Christmas eve). Dancing atop the tables in new drag, Justin snuck in one of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” dance moves. Can you believe it? I laughed.
The movie opener, “Seasons of Love” commenced the second act. I was waiting for Haneefah’s rendition of the solo I thought she would take. After all, the high C is hit when taken by Tracie Thoms as Joanne in the movie. It wasn’t Haneefah. A Company member did the honors and disappointed I was not. Now it’s new year’s eve. At this point only a week has lapsed since the beginning of the performance. Time passes more quickly from here on out. We fast forward to Valentine’s Day. Things aren’t going well for Joanne and Maureen and Joanne, tired of being Maureen’s slave, calls it quits. The song “Take Me Or Leave Me” foretells the end of their relationship. The two powerhouses in Haneefah and Nicolette made this one of my favorites live. The lyrics describe their polar opposite natures. Maureen is the flirtatious, domineering, and careless one: [A tiger in a cage/ Can never see the sun/ This diva needs her stage/ Baby- let’s have fun!/ You are the one I choose/ Folks’d kill to fill your shoes/ You love the limelight too, baby]. Joanne is the responsible, hard-working, insecure one: [It won’t work/ I look before I leap/ I love margins and discipline/ I make lists in my sleep/ Baby what’s my sin?/ Never quit- I follow through/ I hate mess- but I love you/ What to do with my impromptu baby]. Both parties continue by requesting that the other ‘take me for what I am’ because she cannot change.
Again we fast forward to spring. The ballads are carried out. Mimi and Roger also throw in the towel and Angel is taken by his disease. Roger feels the need to escape and decides to move to Santa Fe. In “Halloween,” a number that is left out of the movie, Mark reminisces about life a year ago and how different and much better it was. Collins has agreed by saying he can’t believe ‘this family must die.’ While in Santa Fe playing his guitar to pedestrians, Roger can’t get Mimi out of his mind. He goes back to New York when it is again Christmas eve. We hear the electric guitar accompaniment when Mark and Roger cap “What You Own.” Don’t forget about those guys playing their instruments in the dark. It’s all part of the outcome.
At home Roger learns that Mimi is missing. Maureen and Joanne, having settled their differences, find her living on the streets and bring her to Roger’s where she had asked to be taken. Roger finally voices his love for Mimi and plays her the song she inspired (“Your Eyes“). It took him all year to write it. He finally found meaning in the remainder of his numbered days and someone he wants to be with until they expire. But Mimi is fading by the defeat of her illness. She momentarily falls unconscious before her fever breaks and she wakes. In the finale Roger sings, ‘thank God this moment is not the last.’ She does not die, but the illusive happy ending it appears to be, it is not. They have no future. They will live in fear until the fear is replaced with death or loss.