Raise the roof
More than most community theater fodder, Rent carries heavy cultural baggage, making it impossible to view Truckee Meadows Community College’s production in a vacuum, without a nod to the context in which it is experienced. People are cynical about Rent the same way they are cynical about James Cameron’s Titanic. Both have suffered a pop-cultural backlash for wrapping up rough, ugly experiences with a pretty bow, populating them with squeaky clean young actors, and—here is the part that really pisses people off—achieving massive success with their formulae.
Rent is now something of a relic. Its target audience has grown up, sold out and moved to suburbia. Many now dismiss the show as dated and punchless. The fact that the film adaptation was directed by Chris Columbus, harbinger of such edgy fare as Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire, doesn’t help the show’s street cred. What people may have forgotten about Rent, however, is that its story, songs and characters still combine to form something powerful and unique—if you can set aside your own world-weary cynicism.
While it’s not exactly Les Miserables in terms of vocal difficulty, in order for Rent to work, certain roles must be cast with true singers. Where it counts most, director Paul Aberasturi somehow managed to find some legitimate talent. Ryan Kelly, Adam Semas and Tony Johnson are remarkable as the show’s backbone of Mark, Roger and Collins, respectively. Each brings the skill and passion so crucial to the show’s effectiveness. Nobody shies away from any big notes. (Take it from someone who knows every syllable of the original cast recording.) If this trio is the show’s spine, Michael Davanzo is its heart in the role of Angel, a charming, lovable, drag-queen street performer who happens to be slowly dying. Managing to be both tragic and uplifting, Davanzo, for lack of a more elegant description, kicks ass. In high-heeled boots. As the AIDS-victim/junkie/bombshell Mimi, Lauren Logan has all the requisite sexiness to be convincing as the struggling Roger’s muse. Beyond the principals, most everyone shines when they get the chance. Ensemble member Kiet Cao is particularly excellent, nailing several solos, including the emotional “Life Support” scene.
Enhancing the experience is the sense that everyone onstage is having one of the greatest experiences of their lives just being a part of something so special. Many of the actors probably spent countless hours of their adolescence belting out these songs in their bedrooms. That kind of passion can’t be faked, and it’s what makes Rent so effective despite the text’s tendency to be overwrought and grandiose in spots.
Through a critical lens, TMCC’s production isn’t perfect. Its cast forgivably lacks some … let’s say, color. Not every actor is a vocal powerhouse, some are miscast, and a duet or two suffers rough patches. However, in terms of sheer audience enjoyment, the production defies skepticism and is surprisingly—almost shockingly—great. Not to slap anyone with a backhanded compliment, but when you bite off something this hugely ambitious, your chances of choking are all the greater. Rent means a lot to a lot of people. It’s not like staging Annie. If you’re not up to the task, you’re not just going to disappoint, you’re going to inspire anger. Yet from the moment the audience members walk in and see the perfect set, they’ll forget they’re sitting in a Reno strip mall. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll forget they live in a cynical age, where the easiest, laziest way to be cool is to dismiss something as uncool. True, Rent is packaged for mass-consumption. But if you let that stop you from being moved, it’s probably your own problem.