Forget Regret, or Life is Yours to Miss
Reviewed by Mary Alderson
It’s a story about the lack of affordable housing, about drug and alcohol addiction, about violence in the streets, about police brutality, about homophobia and prejudice, and about the deadly rise in HIV/AIDS.
It doesn’t sound like the makings of a great Broadway musical, does it?
It’s also a story about love – both lost and found – and then lost again.
Set in about 1989, Rent was workshopped off-Broadway in 1994, and then premiered on Broadway in 1996. Sadly, Jonathan Larson, creator of Rent, died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm the night before the Broadway opening. He was only 35.
Thankfully, he knew his work had made it to Broadway, and Larson was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score, as well as the Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Book of a Musical, Outstanding Music, and Outstanding Lyrics, and four other major awards.
Rent is regarded as a ground-breaking musical, loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème. Instead of the glamour of Paris in 1837, Rent is set against New York’s tough and gritty life in 1989.
Stratford’s production of Rent would have made Jonathan Larson proud, I think. It’s loud and energetic at times, and at other times sweet and loving. The contrast between the two makes it a great show.
Mark and Roger, a filmmaker and a songwriter respectively, live in a derelict industrial building in a seedy section of New York City. Mark has just broken up with his girlfriend, Maureen, who is now dating Joanne. Roger meets and eventually falls for Mimi, and exotic dancer with the drug problem. Their friend Tom Collins comes to visit but is beaten and mugged on the way. He meets Angel, a beautiful drag queen, and they fall in love. We see the struggles and joys of these seven friends as a year, or as they sing in the song “Seasons of Love”, 525,600 minutes, goes by. An eighth character, Benny, has gone from being a friend to a villain. He now owns their run-down building and is harassing them to pay rent. Plus he wants to tear everything down for new development.
The two female leads are both outstanding. Andrea Macasaet has returned home to Canada from Broadway, where she played Anne Boleyn in Six, to take on the role of Mimi. Her big, powerful voice belies her small stature, as she nails “Out Tonight”, an excellent vehicle to show her vocal range. Erica Peck excels as Maureen, the singer who protests homelessness with a concert. Peck’s comedic skills show in her nursery rhyme cow song, “Over the Moon”. Her dynamic vocal talent is demonstrated in her duet “Take Me or Leave Me” with Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane as Joanne. Peck’s energy is endless.
Robert Markus as Mark and Koltan Stewart as Roger are well paired as the artists/roommates living in the abandoned industrial building. Markus and Sinclair-Brisbane sing the delightful “Tango: Maureen” and even manage some tango dance steps as they both navigate their romances with Maureen. Stewart’s duets with Macasaet “I Should Tell You” and “Without You” show the intricacies of their relationship.
Lee Seigel as Collins and Nestor Lozano Jr. as Angel celebrate their newfound love with “I’ll Cover You”. Then Seigel’s rich voice causes heartbreak when he reprises this song at the funeral.
The ensemble of great singers sounds like a huge choir, as Larson’s brilliant songs and lyrics fill the Festival Theatre. Credit goes to the entire cast for the beautiful anthem “Seasons of Love” which resonates in harmony at the opening and closing of act II. There is good reason that that the song about 525,600 minutes is the best known in Rent.
Everything works perfectly in the show: it is well cast with excellent singers, the orchestra sounds great, the lighting is perfect, and the stage with its rising platform and industrial look takes us to New York. The entire show pulls you into that 1989 world, and you feel all the emotions that are delivered with each song. Credit goes to director Thom Allison for pulling all the parts together, helped by assistant director Thomas Alderson.
Somehow, all the horror in their lives – their poor living conditions, addiction, violence, homophobia, prejudice, AIDS – becomes bearable with their friendship and love.
As Allison writes in the program notes, “So in the end, how will you measure your life? Take Mr. Larson’s advice: measure it in love, my friends.”
Don’t miss this opportunity to see this iconic rock musical, so very well presented.
Rent continues in repertory until October 28 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford. Tickets are available at the Stratford Festival at 1-800-567-1600, or check www.stratfordfestival.ca
Photo: Erica Peck as Joanne, Robert Markus as Mark and company in Rent. Photo by David Hou.
Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Thom Allison
Musical Direction by Franklin Brasz
Choreography by Marc Kimelman
Assistant Director Thomas Alderson
Performed by Robert Markus, Kolton Stewart, Andrea Macasaet, Erica Peck, Lee Siegel, Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane, Nestor Lozano Jr., et al.
Festival Theatre, Stratford
June 2 to October 28, 2023
Reviewed by Mary Alderson
Note: The assistant director is the reviewer’s son.