Rent, the 1996 Tony and Pulitzer Prize award-winning musical written by Jonathan Larson (who died after the final dress rehearsal in New York) and directed by Michael Greif, had its Canadian premiere in Toronto at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on November 25, 1997. Produced by David and Ed Mirvish and the original New York producers Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum, Allan S. Gordon and the New York Theatre Workshop, Larson's ode to AIDS, love, and homelessness plays until spring, when the production will travel to Vancouver.
So much hype preceded the Toronto opening that we prepared ourselves for ground breaking theatre, a return to the heady days of A Chorus Line and the like. Notoriously fickle Broadway critics heaped so much praise on the Broadway version that it created a sensation and orgy of ticket buying. A collection of Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize - the same honours bestowed on A Chorus Line and Angels in America - should indicate something revolutionary about Rent. While fresh and sometimes dazzlingly inventive, Rent is more a velvet revolution than one that changes the world. And while successfully repeating the New York pattern of casting relatively unknowns and retaining the vitality of the original, the Toronto production's whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Rent does explode with a high energy that is rarely seen on stage today due largely to the cast's youthful exuberance, raw talent and rock 'n roll voices. Picked from an auditioned group of 6000 young, street-savvy performers from all cultural backgrounds, the fifteen cast members strut, bound, and sing their hearts out trying to bring the audience into their world of friendship, love and pain, and homelessness. Unfortunately, Larson's sparse book doesn't allow for much character development, resulting in rather one-dimensional creatures for whom we wished we had more sympathy. There are fine moments that are milked for all the emotional worth, but they sometimes fall flat, and it's no fault of these talented youngsters. The composer's rock-pop score is considerably more successful than the book and contains many memorable songs, lush harmonies and the smash hit, Seasons of Love - truly a composition for the ages. It alone is worth the price of admission.
The story, based on Puccini's La Boheme, is a modern-day tragedy with the tuberculosis of yesteryear replaced with an AIDS-saturated New York 'hood of the '90s. Rent celebrates a young community of East Villagers as they struggle with the soaring hopes and tough realities of today's New York. The story is complimented by Paul Clay's brilliantly evocative set design, bringing to the stage a world of diverse cultures and music in a tribute to struggling artists and bohemians. Mark (Chad Richardson) an aspiring documentary filmmaker (and Rent's narrator), is living in an industrial loft he shares with his HIV-positive roommate, Roger (Luther Creek). Musician Roger, who wants to write the one great song and can only strum "Musetta's Waltz" from Puccini's La Boheme, has a torrid affair with AIDS-stricken S&M dancer Mimi (Krysten Cummings), while Mark's old girlfriend, Maureen (Jenifer Aubry), an avant-garde performance artist, has left him for another woman, Harvard-educated Joanne (Karen Leblanc). The gay bent continues as their recently mugged friend Tom (Danny Blanco), also HIV-positive, falls in love with magnanimous Angel (Jai Rodrigues), an HIV-positive transvestite with a heart of gold.
Meanwhile, ex-roomie Benny (Damian Perkins), possibly the only character not infected with the virus, has recently married into wealth and concocts a plan to evict the tenants and the area's wretched homeless camped in the adjacent lot. The angst these survivors deal with over the course of a year in their bittersweet lives is overwhelming: suicide, illness, pain, cold - but they do survive, and it's their wonderful gift of optimism that drives the story.
Larson's music is uplifting, complex and sometimes stretches the vocal talents of these newcomers. The first scenes illustrate this as both Creek (One Song Glory) and Cummings (Out Tonight) sing with wild abandon, offering the audience their souls through their hoarse instruments but with such heart one forgives the lack of polish. Standout songs include the lilting Santa Fe, and the lush chorale Christmas Bells. The supremely gifted Larson covers the gamut of musical styles from rock to gospel...it's all here. Closing the first act is the company number, La Vie Boheme, a passionate anthem to that lifestyle and showcasing the talents of the company singing as a whole. Shining like a star above all the excitement is Jenifer Aubry. This Quebec actress/comedienne/singer wears all her hats as Maureen and creates memorable moments not soon forgotten, as in the sexy Take Me or Leave Me and the hysterical Over the Moon. Richardson is the other bright light who displays his formidable vocal and acting talents and makes Mark so appealing.
Rent's diversity challenges the predictability of the mainstream one-hit (or no-hit!) production-line musicals of the past decade, and that in itself is a hearty recommendation. What it looses in character development (and a distinct lack of choreography) it makes up for in vitality, and the heart and soul of those youngsters' valiant attempts to engage the audience.
The subject matter may not be to everyone's taste, but Larson, through his inspired vision, does makes you think and feel .... and that's what theatre's all about. Go and see what is surely the Toronto theatre event of the year. Tickets now on sale at the Royal Alex Box Office, and by telephone at 1-800-461-3333 or 416-872-1212.
|And speaking of comments, here's what You had to say:|
I have been a subscriber for a number of
years to the Royal Alex. I was
Personally, I believe that this would have been better offered as a single performance. I noticed what I was sitting in the vibrating theatre that several people left before the first intermission. There is something to be said in investing in hearing aids!!!!
I would have preferred, from what I have seen, to have "Chicago" as part of the subscription series. Unfortunately, I did not elect to purchase tickets for this, which, from the advertisements, I feel would have been more appropriate in a series.
Hopefully, the upcoming 1998-99 will be more selective to the audience. ---Jenny Befrene
What can I say about RENT? Well, to start off, it's not what critics say it is. It is one of the most disappointing shows I have ever seen, and I have seen over 20 of them in the past five years. The staging and choreography were terrible, the plot and development were dumb, and the characters were extremely dull (emotionally). When I saw the show I sat there waiting for something to really move me, but I just left the theatre empty.
I just laugh thinking about all those teens who have seen the show lining up for hours just to buy the $20 tickets. They're really wasting their time and money, just for the thrill of getting stared at by the actors and being spat on by them when they sing.
RENT may have succeeded in bringing the younger crowd to theatre, but unfortunately, RENT may be the only show these kids will ever want to see, and will never see any other show. RENT may be considered to be the theatre event of the year, but who said it was good? All the good word on the show was spread by a bunch of teenagers who don't realize that theatre is not supposed to be an empty experience. I'm a teen myself, and in ways, the theatre has made me more mature. Broadway is not going to be the same anymore... the next generation will probably attend only empty rock 'n roll musicals like the crap that is RENT. --JATT
I saw the Toronto production of Jonathan Larson's Rent and I have to disagree with the review in your web page. I felt drawn into their world, haunted and thrilled by the music and for the first time in my
life, I left a play feeling that I would love to see it again. As a member of the generation that it represents, I feel grateful to the departed Mr. Larson for what was his gift not only to the theatre but to a new generation of theatre goers. --- M. St.D.
I thought that Rent was excellent. Mr.Larson touched on todays most pressings issues...AIDS, homelessness, and homosexuality. I found that each character was full of life and the audiance became endeared with them. I think the Larson family should be very proud of not only their son, but also of his play. My husband and I would see it again in an instant if we were given the chance. -- Brian Mercer
2 Pianos, 4 Hands (or 2P4H as it is widely
known) which triumphed in Toronto, in every major Canadian city,
and has conquered New York (playing for over six months at the
prestigious Promenade Theatre on Broadway) and Washington (at
the Kennedy Centre), returned home to Toronto on July 28, 1998
for a six-week engagement until September 5, 1998 at the Royal
2 Pianos, 4 Hands is produced by David & Ed Mirvish and directed by Gloria Muzio, whose New York credits include Other People's Money, Below the Belt and Grace and Glorie and is about a lifetime's obsession with 88 piano keys. Stars Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt recreate the memories of youthful piano-study, exams, Kiwanis competitions to their love-hate relationship with practicing. And, though self-deprecating, they provide superb musicianship on a pair of grand pianos, with music ranging from "In My Little Birch Canoe" to Bach, Schubert and Mozart. The show has an interesting pedigree that was born at the innovative Tarragon Theatre (Toronto) in March 1996. The original production proved a phenomenon and won a well-deserved 1996 Dora Mavor Moore Award for outstanding production. This present incarnation is the even more polished result that wowed them on Broadway and proved, yet again, that Canadian theatrical talent is alive and well and living south of the 49th parallel. After the current Royal Alex engagement, 2 Pianos, 4 Hands will begin a 45-week American tour. The show's British premiere is scheduled for January 1999 at Birmingham Rep, before transferring to London's West End.
Dykstra and Greenblatt are quite a duo, Ted (Shaw and Stratford Festival alumnus) being a little more proficient in the comedic acting department with Richard's talent (RADA-trained) on the piano outshining that of his hysterical sidekick just a tad. Their respective gifts provide a wonderfully rich tapestry of music, laughter and bittersweet moments that will linger long in your memory. The naysayers who spout "a play about kids' music lessons!" really don't know what they are missing. Quite frankly, this endearing play bought back floods of memories from these reviewers' respective childhoods. The music theory, the sight-reading, the closeted sports-deprived children, their parents who thought little Johnny should be a concert pianist it's all there, and brought back vividly to life on the stage. This is a real look into the painful hours of practice and dedication demanded, the sacrifices of their young lives, and the intense competition between students as they struggle through the classes and instructors that eventually lead to the bitter recognition that Vladimir Horowitz they will never be.
The collaboration between the stars, the director and a wonderful design team ensure a spit-and-polish production worthy of any stage in the world. Lighting star (and Tony-winner) Tharon Mussser ensures the stage is magnificently illuminated and in particular the pianos. His evocative work makes these magnificent instruments all the more alluring.
Go and see 2 Pianos, 4 Hands before it finishes September 5,1998. The evening's entertainment can be enjoyed by all, both those instrumentally inclined, and those who just enjoy a good listen to a tinkle on the ivories. Playing at The Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. West. For tickets ($21.50 to $46.50), call (416) 872-1212.
Disclaimer: Nothing here is "official." Everything is a composite of media releases, information supplied by or procured from the theatres by direct or devious means, or downright personal opinion. If you don't like what you see, blame us at Stage Door, not the fine folks in the theatres of Southwestern Ontario.