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S.F. ‘Rent’ falls short

Mills College Weekly

“Rent,” the rock musical with something of a cult following opened and got, as usual, a standing ovation for efforts of talented performers and a relentless musical score.

But the energy of the crowd felt dwarfed by the effort of the performers. Marred by a multitude of technical complications-including popping mic’s, a perpetually lagging spotlight operator and feedback during solos-along with a lack of chemistry between actors, opening night felt more like a rehearsal.

The musical, made famous after its original 1996 Off-Broadway run, is written by the late Jonathon Larson and directed by Michael Greif. “Rent,” loosely based on Puccini’s “La Boheme,” returned to San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre last Tuesday.

“Rent” is a rock opera about the lives of the eclectic personalities that make up New York’s East Village. Roger is an HIV-positive rock musician recovering from the suicide of his also positive girlfriend. Mark, the narrator, is an aspiring filmmaker whose performance artist girlfriend, Maureen, recently left him for another woman. The tenement in which they live (and refuse to pay rent on), is also shared by Mimi, an HIV-positive junkie who dances at an S&M bar, and Angel, an HIV-positive drag queen who falls in love with Tom Collins, an HIV positive philosophy teacher and computer whiz. Lastly, Benny is the sell-out yuppie ready to collect the rent.

The plot concerns itself with the relationships built from the disillusionment of living in a world that demands talent, ruthlessness and money. These squatters are young, sexual, starry eyed, addicted, infected and scraping by. Despite the forces mounted against them, they dream of becoming artists and overcoming indignities by forming a family. “Rent” celebrates and despairs over a day-to-day existence.

Love and friendship among the characters come off as disingenuous not only because the forces of their self-involved world forbids it but also because there is no chemistry between them. Roger and Mimi, one central couple looking to build love while fighting off illness, are ostensibly inspired by the power of love. But their attraction and passionate love affair seems less convincing than the fact that Mimi (played by Krystal Washington) outshines Roger (Kevin Spencer) in stage presence and vocal talent.

Mimi and Angel seemed to carry the burden for the energy of the show, while others were a nuisance-like Mark, the nasally narrator, who carried his clunky camera around and strained my ears with every word he sang.

Praised for reinvigorating Broadway, “Rent’s” trademark is its gritty, unflinching honesty and wit. “Rent” achieves these things, but oversimplifies its characters, packaging people into one subset: society’s forgotten, or forgettable.

That world, is celebrated in numbers like “No day but today” and “La Vie Boheme,” yet is unconvincing when it comes to expressing real loss or pain. People die and are dying, fragile dreams disappear, but without emotional impact. There is no sense of family, just a bunch of people passing each other by.

Among other annoyances, every word in this musical is sung-whether banal phone conversation from the worrying parents, inner dialogue and narrative notes. The stage, static and crowded by the musicians, was visually uninteresting.

Anticipating a great show, I am now among the minority of those unimpressed by, what one reviewer called, “the finest rock musical ever written.” But my dislike for this performance of “Rent” cannot be attributed to an old fuddy-duddy-ness as a hater of loud music, as a political conservative, or a musical purist who wants more “My Fair Lady” and “Oklahoma.”

No, I’m not a blue haired woman walking out in disgust, nor am I shocked at the content, the images, or the lifestyle of bohemians, but what I wanted was an overarching theme, a point-a story. Instead I saw a lot of talented people working way too hard only to offer snippets of memorable performances.

There were moments and music worth remembering, like the tender “Light My Candle,” the odd but funny performance by Maureen, and Mimi’s dramatic entrance, as well as Angel decked out in Santa drag complete with glitter and platforms heels.

My feelings aside, the success of “Rent” is indisputable. As a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner, with a huge following, and nationwide acclaim, this musical will keep people coming to the shows. Perhaps the Orpheum run will get polished over time.