Real artists take risks: singing, even when the song is complicated; dancing, even when jumping up on a table to do so guarantees lower back pain; kissing guys or girls (or both at the same time) if the part calls for it. While the wannabe artists in Rent may occasionally fail to make the grade, the actors in Runaway Stage Productions’ version certainly do not. The company takes risks in this one—and for the most part, they succeed.
Rent is the late Jonathan Larson’s opus posthumous of life among the creative class in ’80s New York (narrative shamelessly stolen from Puccini’s La Bohème; plot points even more shamelessly stolen from Sarah Schulman’s novel People in Trouble). Yes, there’s a drag queen, Angel, and Joseph Boyette works it, girl.
In fact, the cast is note-perfect—which is tough, given that the pop-rock songs in this sort-of opera require some serious singing chops. The singing, dancing and acting is so good that some of the flaws in the play become much easier to see, particularly as the resolution all comes down to one scene in the second act, as Mark (Tyler Robinson, fresh off a triumphant run as Joe Pitt in Angels in America in Roseville) and Roger (Eddie Voyce) accuse each other of emotional cowardice. There’s just not enough groundwork done earlier to make it work; it’s a flaw Larson no doubt would have fixed if he’d lived to see the show through previews.
The production is also so good that it’s possible to go through almost the whole show without noticing the quirky sound system (please donate to RSP’s special fund for a new system—these artists deserve it). Darryl Stroh’s choreography goes beyond merely energetic to take on the acrobatic; Voyce and Shanta Robinson (Mimi) have voices that are well-matched for an intense and self-destructive pair of lovers; Rudy “Roods” Brown plays Tom Collins as the moral center of the group; Robinson’s Mark is less nebbishy and more anxiety-ridden; Ali Llacer, as Benny the landlord, combines tough and frustrated with affectionate; and Lorraine De Arco (Joanne) and Lindsey Grimes (Maureen) make the on-again, off-again passion between their characters believable in a heart-stopping duet (“Take Me or Leave Me”).
And Boyette? His Angel dances and sings and loves—all with a passion far beyond his small frame.
Finally, to the couple sitting behind this critic opening night, who groaned and walked out when Tom kissed Angel: You’re the reason American musical theater is in trouble and why, outside of the 212, it can’t draw an audience with an average age younger than 60. When shows try to grow beyond Rodgers and Hammerstein (who had a rigid view of gender roles and occasional racial stereotypes) to attract an audience that appreciates a little complexity, people like you come along and demand yet another typical, boring boy-meets-girl plot, with dancing that isn’t either too risqué or difficult and simplistic songs. Sorry, folks. Art doesn’t mimic life. Art is life and death and risk.
Fortunately, the young actors in RSP’s Rent are real artists.