Rent: I didn’t buy it

This is the poster for Renegade Productions mounting of the rock musical Rent.

Rent is a difficult musical. Renegade Productions’ mounting shows just how difficult.

This Renegade Arts mounting of Rent gets so much so wrong. There are talented people in the cast, and some elements of the show work, but fundamental errors undermine the production.

A rock musical, Rent features a group of young-adult friends who are living in New York’s Alphabet City in the late 80s or early 90s. An aspiring filmmaker named Mark, who keeps shooting footage of his pals, acts as the narrator. Mark lives in an illegal loft with Roger, a musician who has been sideswiped by HIV. Early on, Mark meets an exotic dancer named Mimi who is also living with the virus. Altogether, four of the seven main characters are infected. The other two are Collins, who is a philosophy professor, and Collins’s drag-queen partner, Angel. A lesbian couple—lawyer Joanne and performance artist Maureen, who used to be Mark’s girlfriend—rounds out the group.

In the most obvious plotline, this bunch struggles against their former friend Benny. Benny owns the building that many of them live in and he is claiming a year in back rent. At its core, though, the musical is concerned with how the central characters negotiate love.

Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics for Rent, borrowed heavily from Puccini’s La Bohème, which is also about impoverished young artists. To do the music in Rent justice, you need the power—and, for some of the roles, the range—of an opera singer.

That’s the first problem with this mounting: vocally, most of the leads aren’t up to the task. Vanessa Merenda (Joanne) is the most consistently pleasing vocalist and she delivers a nuanced acting performance. Simon Paterson, who plays, Benny, also has a rich vocal tone, and, as Mark, Pete MacLeod has his moments, including when he sings the dizzy duet “The Tango Maureen” with Merenda’s Joanne. MacLeod doesn’t have the chops for the rock-and-roll wailing that’s required elsewhere, however.

Volume is also an issue. The band isn’t loud enough and the singers are inadequately miked, so the musical’s considerable energy bleeds out. Volume is a particular problem for Jaxon Jensen’s Angel. Jensen brings sweetness to the character, but I could often barely hear him.

Bizarrely, this production of Rent is also often hard to see—at least it was from the seat I had during Act 1 on opening night. From that seat, one of designer Jonathan Kim’s lights was directed from the back wall straight into my eyeballs. And a whole lot of scenes took place directly in front of it. For long chunks, I could literally see none of the action. My companion and I complained and were graciously offered different seats for Act 2. The problem may get fixed. Still, it was a significant error and it had a major impact on my experience.

Then there’s the whole issue of staging. Director Dawn Ewen takes the awkward Shop Theatre studio—a large, low-ceilinged room—and seats the audience in a V in one of the corners. Most of the action takes place way upstage in the point of the opposite V. And, too often, when Ewen doesn’t have her actors stuffed into that recess, she lets them wander around aimlessly.

Not even the costumes work. Collins’s coat, which is stolen when he gets beaten up and shows up again later, is an iconic item, but costumer Marina Luro fails to make it memorable.

Character dynamics that have worked well in other stagings go AWOL here. Maureen is meant to be eccentrically charming, for instance, but, under Ewen’s direction, Jennifer Pielak overplays Maureen’s introductory solo, “Over the Moon”, so energetically that she crushes its wit.

Thanks partly to musical director Clare Wyatt, one of the best things about Renegade’s interpretation of Rent is the choral singing. Ensemble members Annastasia Brown and Ryan Waechter stand out in a collection of small roles. And all of the actors are sincerely committed to the story so, when AIDS starts to take its toll in Act 2, it’s moving.

Amateur theatre can be good. Renegade’s production of Hair in 2016 was very, very good. No doubt, many of the participants in this production of Rent will go on to bigger and better things—but they need more guidance than they’re getting.

RENT Book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Dawn Ewen. A Renegade Arts Company production. At the Shop Theatre on Friday, March 30. Continues until April 14.

Tickets: renegaderent.brownpapertickets.com

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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