“Rent” tells human story

"Rent" tells a compelling story, but is it worth seeing? Photo credit movieposter.com.

The 20th anniversary tour of Jonathan Larson’s musical “Rent” opened Sept. 20 at the Winspear Opera House as part of AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Broadway series.

What the production lacks in polish, it makes up for in enthusiasm.

It oozes energy, and yet that is not always enough to save a show.

It was not altogether a disappointing performance; however, it was not up to the standards that Dallas residents have come to expect from the glamorous Winspear.

The 1996 Broadway hit, loosely based on Puccini’s opera, “La Bohème,” tells the story of impoverished artists struggling to survive in New York City.

Mark, a filmmaker, and Roger, a musician, live in an abandoned building owned by their friend Benny.

Benny told them they could live there rent-free, but now, on Christmas Eve, Benny is tearing down the building next door and threatening to evict Roger and Mark unless they pay rent.

Mark’s ex-girlfriend, Maureen, is staging a protest with the help of her new girlfriend, Joanne.

Roger was recently diagnosed with AIDS and is isolating himself at home but Mimi, a feisty dancer from downstairs, tries to entice him to go out.

Together they struggle to make sense of their lives through the disease and poverty of life in New York in the 1990s.

Production aspects such as set and lighting design are sharp and effective.

The sprawling set, originally designed by Paul Clay and adapted for the tour by Matthew Maraffi, displays 1996 New York City in all its grit and glory.

An iron staircase juts out upstage center in between twin metal platforms flanking stage left and right.

The five-piece band is situated underneath the stage right platform, present but unobtrusive.

The show is entirely sung through, and the musicians play consistently with the energy and precision demanded by Larson’s revolutionary score.

Jonathan Spencer’s lighting design vibrantly sets the tone for the fast-paced, high-stakes story being told. Sharp lighting changes shift the mood and focus of the narrative to great effect.

Marlies Yearby’s choreography is repetitive and lackluster.

The actors attack the movement with gusto, but their choreography does not further the narrative or deepen understanding of the characters. The show truly shines when it doesn’t try to be too much: The material is dense, and Larson’s explosive score is more than enough to tell the whole story.

Rather than trying to decide if this particular touring production is worth seeing, however, the more pressing question is whether the show itself is worth seeing.

One can leave the theatre and say that, objectively, it was not a great performance.

On the other hand, that does one say about the material?

Is taking in art that we don’t agree with part of being an independent thinker at UD? When you walk out of a theatre, museum or cinema and you don’t like what you’ve seen, can that experience still be good for you?

I disagree with nearly all the life choices made by the characters in “Rent.” They celebrate lifestyles of reckless immorality and self-indulgence, which only harms them more.

Still, as a human being, I can go to the theater and hear their stories and learn to love them and see their dignity.

I believe this is part of my Catholic identity — the desire to know people who are different from you and see their dignity and their pain.

Every choice Roger and Mimi and Mark and Maureen make is in pursuit of dignity and happiness. They go about it in all the wrong ways, but there is no denying the universality of humans trying to get through life with a scrap of dignity in the face of extreme pain and misfortune.

Mark and Roger are refusing to pay rent, but is that all they’re refusing? In the face of poverty, broken relationships, AIDS and estranged families, rent becomes a larger idea; it is everything the world demands of you just to exist. Jumping through hoops, bending over backwards — society increasingly demands more of people.

By asking, “How we gonna pay last year’s rent?” Roger and Mark are asking, “How are we going to live in a world where nothing we do will ever be enough?”

They are confronted with the choice between paying rent and letting that be how they will measure their lives, or refusing to accept that rent is all they will ever contribute to society.

Will you measure your life in the rent you pay or the love you give?

Decide for yourself and catch “Rent” at the Winspear through Oct. 2.



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