RENT but don’t buy
Santa Monica College’s spring musical RENT premiered to a sold out crowd at last Thursday’s preview. Through the performance the audience was treated to coming-of-age songs and carefully choreographed dances from the award winning musical about the trials and tribulations of the bohemian lifestyle of New York City in the late 1980’s.
There is no doubting the original musical’s cultural significance. It was creator Johnathan Larson’s darling that reached popularity of epic proportions with a Tony Award, a Pulitzer Prize and a film adaptation. For 12 years, the show ran on Broadway and brought the AIDS epidemic to mainstream audiences.
And that should be enough to make SMC’s production a guaranteed hit.
Unfortunately, it missed the mark. It felt unprepared. It felt rushed and insincere. It was like a caricature of its original self, and it made me sad. Former sensuality was now raunchy, raw and unpolished—singers fell flat frequently and the additions and subtractions made by director Dr. Adrianne Harrop left some in the audience confused.
Issues with the audio of the backing band distracted from the performance on more than one occasion. In some places the singers’ vocals were too quiet to be heard over the bombast of the backing band’s drummer.
The highly melodic libretto of the show is based in joy in the face of adversity. The characters’ lives are rough. Though they struggle with AIDS, alienation and poverty they are vibrant, exuberant and cunning. SMC’s production didn’t fully embody this; with the exception of Felix Omar who portrayed Angel, there were moments when the cast seemed tired. Perhaps that can be attributed to the fact that RENT, with highly dynamic music numbers and non-stop dancing is a physically demanding musical to perform.
Omar, however, absolutely killed it. I was blown away by his embodiment of the character. Angel is complex – Omar must play his vivaciousness in drag numbers, charisma in and fearlessness in death. He danced like a madman and easily stole the show during Today 4 U and La Vie Boehme.
SMC Musical veteran Carlos Padilla portrayed Roger who had the strongest voice out of the whole cast. It was clear, powerful and emotive. The full house jumped at the opportunity to participate in Diana Guzman’s stunningly esoteric rendition of Maureen’s “Over the Moon” protest moo-along.
The highlight of the night was the ensemble’s rendition of Seasons of Love and La Vie Boehme. Cast members shined in these numbers that felt cohesive, honest aqnd deliberate. The minimalism of the musical backing here may have lent to their clarity and enjoyment.
However, something that happened off stage at the performance became the most memorable part of our evening, though it shouldn’t have. Our humble group of two had saved two seats next to ours for our friends who were running late.
Close to the beginning of the show, a woman approached from the back of the theater and took issue with the jackets we had placed over the adjacent seats. “You can’t do this!” she bellowed meanly, “I’m the director!”
She was. More words were exchanged as we explained we were waiting for our friends who had been caugbht up outside. While she was irate, she acquiesced–albeit begrudgingly–when we pointed out more open seats directly behind us.
It wasn’t a great way to start the show. Her behavior was rude and unprofessional, and left me with a feeling of helplessness and anguish. We had been condescended to like rambunctious toddlers when we had really done nothing wrong or unusual.
The others in the audience in our area looked at her, shocked. All of our moods had changed. As the face of her production, she did a great disservice to the show, her cast and the theater department.
It should go without saying that corporate protesting, debates about non-traditional love and the AIDS epidemic were as topical twenty years ago as they are today. RENT is a powerful musical even under the direction of Dr. Harrop, and I have high hopes for the cast members.
Just make sure you stay seated the entire time.