When playwright, author and musician Jonathan Larson passed away of a mysterious, misdiagnosed condition on the eve before the debut of his provocative musical, Rent, in 1996, the world lost a profound talent and gained a new and honest understanding of young life nearing the end of an era.
Fuelled with passion, angst and wit, Rent tells the story of a family of characters living in New York City’s East Village, all struggling to sustain and create in a city quickly becoming rampant with AIDS and anarchy.
Rent gained immense international popularity, earning the spot of seventh longest running Broadway show in history, before officially closing its doors in September of 2008. Fortunately, Vancouver-based Artistic Director of Fighting Chance Productions, Ryan Mooney, has recently revived the show for Presentation House Theatre in North Vancouver. This is the first time the show has ever been performed in Canada with an all-Canadian cast and the pre-sales for the show have exceeded expectations.
So how is Rent still able to capture the audiences’ attention? Mooney is quoted in the Director’s notes of the program as saying, “…the stories [Rent] tells are timeless...You just have to turn on the evening news to see homeless shelters being shut down and arts funding being cut to realize that these issues are just as relevant now as when Jon Larsen sat down to write them.”
As we found our seats in the cozy Presentation House Theatre, the lights dimmed upon us and lit up the set as the varied cast of performers took to the stage. From the vibrant opening number of the first song, called simply “Rent,” it is apparent that this cast of performers are eager, excited, nervous and quite obviously, talented. The show continued on relatively seamlessly, with the only complaint being a slight issue with the sound. Whether it be the acoustics or the sound system, or a combination of the two, there were key phrases that were sometimes lost in a muffled hymn of voices, albeit, lovely ones.
With such a varied group of performers, from the husky, intense voice of Craig DeCarlo (Roger Davis), to Cesar Erba’s confidently flamboyant Angel Dumott Schunard and the irrepressible Jacqueline Breakwell as the passionate and exasperating Maureen Johnson, one can only imagine the fun these folks have been having rehearsing and toiling for Rent.
The musical talent is multi-dimensional both in the range of the performers voices and in the sound of the Rent House Band, led by Musical Director, Sarah Jaysmith. Instead of the usual location of downstage in the pit, the Rent House Band is situated high above upstage. The sound resonates throughout the theatre, accompanying Jenn Suratos suffering-for-love lawyer, Joanne Jefferson and Anton Lipovetsky’s spirited filmmaker Mark Cohen, in the fantastic number, “Tango Maureen,” all the way through Christine Quintana’s sensual introduction to Roger Davis as exotic dancer and AIDS infected Mimi Marquez in “Light My Candle.” Cathy Wilmot, who plays a number of different characters, shines in each role with a voice that will knock you off your feet and Kholby Wardell is convincingly slick in his suit as Benjamin Coffin III. The atmosphere is achieved by uncomplicated lighting and set pieces with the help of Graham Ockley, Mimi Abraham and Tracy Lynn Chernaske, with the performers kitted out in costume styling by a few of the multi-talented cast ladies.
While the entire cast is strongly suited to each role, you can still feel the nervous excitement of a group of actors on the verge of breaking through. Each performer becomes stronger and progressively more comfortable with his or her voice as the storyline progresses, leading to a jubilant and thrilling finale. For the characters of Rent there may be “No Day but Today,” but for the performers, the future is looking awfully bright.
Photo: Rent director Ryan Mooney