If you led anything resembling a Bohemian lifestyle in New York City in the last couple of decades of the 20th century, watching people you knew drop like flies from AIDS was pretty much unavoidable. The musical Rent, which adapted the plot and characters of Puccini’s La Bohème from 1840s Paris’ Latin Quarter to Alphabet City circa 1990, so perfectly captured the Gen X zeitgeist that it became a massive Broadway success in 1996.
That production won a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, six Drama Desk Awards, three Obies, four Tonys and even a Pulitzer. The sudden and ironic death of author/lyricist/composer Jonathan Larson (from a cardiac defect, not AIDS) just a few weeks before the show’s Off-Broadway premiere added a level of buzz that – along with the availability of $20 seats for those willing to wait on a long line – spawned an army of young theater aficionados known as Rent-heads who came back to see it over and over again.
Time has moved on, HIV-positive folks are living longer, more normal lives and poor 20-somethings are more likely to move back in with their parents until their college loans are paid off than to squat in abandoned lofts on the Lower East Side. And as the original crop of Rent-heads mature, they may find their tolerance growing thin for the play’s angsty bickering of commitment-phobic couples whilst their friends are dying around them. But the role of heroin addiction in the plot as both a vector for the disease and a palliative for sore hearts has, sadly, taken on new resonance for today’s youth as use of the drug skyrockets, even in rural communities where it was previously uncommon.
The Department of Theatre Arts at SUNY-New Paltz has mounted a spirited revival of Rent, continuing this weekend, under the direction of department chair Jack Wade; and a whole page of the playbill is devoted to a discussion of the “troubling trend” of increasing usage of opiates by teens in the Hudson Valley, along with the mind-numbing allure of heroin to the characters in the play. So it seems to be the right time, two decades on, for this musical to come around again. And since the whole first act happens on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, this is the right time of year for a new production as well.
Like the predecessor a generation before to which it is often compared, Hair, Rent is a rock opera, heavy on songs and light on recitative – and for all its downbeat drama, it doesn’t really have much of a plot. Bits of character backstory are tossed off in a line or two of lyrics that will likely fly over your head if you haven’t seen the show a time or two before. It’s enough to know that the main characters, all artsy types, are about to be thrown out of their unheated building by a dastardly former roommate who has sold out and gone into real estate, that they plan to fight the gentrification via guerrilla theater and that about half the cast of characters are HIV-positive. After that it’s mostly a lot of sing, yearn, squabble and die, with the few plot twists advertising their arrival well in advance.
For those more familiar with the opera, the big difference is that the original central character, Mimi, has been transformed from a frail, delicate seamstress whose death from consumption anchors the final scene to a rather jaded exotic dancer with AIDS. The spotlight on her tragic end gets purloined by a secondary character, Schaunard, here depicted as a cross-dressing performance artist named Angel. It’s the lighthearted, luminous Angel who inspires the only uncomplicated true love in the story, and who continually tries to distract the other characters from wallowing in their woes. Though the presence of a guardian angel in their midst doesn’t save anyone from the consequences of their risky behaviors, it does at least ultimately refocus their priorities. S/he’s Rent’s one true stroke of genius, and casting the right actor in the part is crucial to a production’s success.
Fortunately, the SUNY revival has found its seraphic center in a student named Diego Velazquez. He can’t claim the strongest male voice in the cast – that would be the Garfunkelesque tenor of Daniel Hurley, who plays Mark, the filmmaker narrator – but Velazquez certainly has the moves and the attitude to be convincing both in a sassy drag number and a contorted, heartbreaking death scene. His performance lifts the whole production to, dare I say, a more celestial level.
But for star quality worth watching in terms of her future career, it’s Berlande Millus as Maureen – the singer based on Musetta in the original – who delivers the knockout punch, several times over. We don’t even meet her character until nearly the end of the first act; we just hear her reputation as a charismatic heartbreaker bemoaned by others left in Maureen’s wake. The payoff of Millus’ grand entrance in “Over the Moon,” punctuated with throaty howls and growls, along with her feisty duet in Act II with her on-again, off-again lover Joanne (Jenny Berger, also in fine voice), is worth every bit of the long buildup.
The rest of the ensemble is strong as well, making good use with Wade’s direction and Joe Langworth’s choreography of an ingenious multilevel set designed by student Dana Weintraub. Tucked away behind a scrim in one of the “tenements,” right onstage, an excellent six-piece pit orchestra pulls all the action together and propels it insistently with tunes in a variety of musical styles, with the soul/R&B-tinged numbers standing out especially.
Rent continues onstage at McKenna Theatre on the SUNY-New Paltz campus this Thursday through Saturday, November 20 to 22, beginning at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinée this Sunday, November 23. Tickets cost $20 general admission, $18 for seniors (62+), SUNY-New Paltz faculty and staff and non-SUNY-New Paltz students and $10 for SUNY-New Paltz students. They can be purchased from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Parker Theatre box office or online at www.newpaltz.edu/theatre. For additional information call (845) 257- 3880 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rent, Thursday-Saturday, November 20-22, 8 p.m., Sunday, November 23, 2 p.m., $20/$18/$10, McKenna Theatre, SUNY-New Paltz, 1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz; (845) 257- 3880, www.newpaltz.edu/theatre.