Before we get to the specifics of Possibilities Theatre’s earnest, engaging staging of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, we must first get into some generalities about Jonathan Larson’s Tony-winning Rent.
It’s been a solid quarter-century since I saw the musical in its initial Broadway run. If you cannot recall 1996, when Rent opened on Broadway, know this: In pre-Y2K, post-Phantom, pre-Hedwig world, the defining trend in musical theater was solidly centered on spectacle, the more over-the-top, the better. We’d all come to expect the likes of crashing chandeliers, hovering helicopters, levitating tires, and towering barricades from our musicals, along with operatic vocals and costumes with couture levels of elaborate eleganza.
Rent came along and was like, fuck all that.
Much of the show’s original costuming came from thrift stores. The set looked like an abandoned warehouse. The score? Solidly rock, with belting altos rather than Tinker Bell-ey sopranic arias dominating the women’s roles.
But alongside that gorgeous score and innovative storytelling was an ugly irony. Rent is a musical about artists who can’t (or won’t—hold that thought) pay for heat, never mind rent, and who subsist on stolen bottles of Stoli and cans of Bustelo (ask an elder). And tickets for Rent were prohibitively expensive, at least for the artists like those it championed.
Ticket prices notwithstanding, Rent is about as anti-capitalist as you can get. Its characters defy The Man in the opening number, belting that they won’t be paying rent and will continue illegally squatting in a building purchased by an old friend they now despise as a soulless sell-out. Later, Mark, the aspiring documentarian at the heart of Rent, scorns a high-paying job with a tabloid as a betrayal of his very soul.
It’s worth noting Mark, aspiring songwriter Roger, and attorney Joanne all came from affluence and/or the suburbs, per the messages their parents leave on their answering machines. These are parents who have confirmation hearings, spa weeks, and Scarsdale homes.
So: Roger, Mark, and Joanne seem to be playing at poverty, while others in their tight band of friends are really struggling to survive. Mimi, for instance, works as a dancer at the Cat Scratch Club. Roger hasn’t left his room in a year, and doesn’t work anywhere. The implication is that Mark and Roger went to college together. Mimi? She gets a lyric about the “crying babies” back home. Roger sings that Mimi looks 16, shortly before sleeping with her. Somehow, Mimi and Roger’s epic love story seems a bit squicky when you start to look closely.
About which. SPOILER ALERT. I mean it. OK? You’ve been warned. The biggest eye-roller of Rent is this:
In the final act, Mimi turns up nearly frozen on a park bench. She’s close to death. She’s been out there freezing for a while. Where, you might well ask, was Roger all that time? Where was the artiste when the love of his life was sleeping on park benches in brutal winter, New York City? Santa Fe. That’s right. Santa. Fucking. Fe. He changes his mind and comes back to New York just in time to thrash his manly breast in sensitive manly anguish over hypothermic Mimi. I will simply quote my Great-Great-Aunt Grace when I say, “That is truly some bullshit right there.”
And yet. Under Melody DeRogatis’s capable direction, Rent continues to compel. The performances are sometimes teetering toward pitch-adjacent and the young cast—particularly Mitch Karmis’s slightly shaky Roger Davis—has a tendency to self-conscious gesticulations. But the near-palpable sense of ebullience among the ensemble flows like a balm over to an audience they quickly charm.
Portions of DeRogatis’s Rent play like a revival meeting, such as the act one finale when the entire crew heads to the café for a full-throttle celebration of everything from weed to Maya Angelou to masturbation in a wildly exuberant rendition of “La Vie Boheme.”
Some of it is poignant: Set in a support group for HIV+ people, “Will I” is as magical as stained glass at sunset, both elegiac and a prayer for the future. “Seasons of Love,” the all-hands-on-deck second act opener, sounds simply sublime.
There’s no live orchestra, but music director Anthony Rodriguez renders a more-than-adequate accompanying score electronically.
There were sound issues at Saturday night’s indoor performance—the rest of them are outside—but there were also numerous standouts. And frankly, the cast sells the material so well, the garbles and glitches fade into minor annoyances.
When tempestuous lovers Maureen (Maddie Barbeau) and Joanne (Mondisa Monde) go at each other in “Take Me or Leave Me,” the sparks fly like a damn fire hazard. When Karmis unleashes those first, incandescent notes of “One Song Glory,” the music captures all the glittering promise of a future that could suddenly dissolve like sugar under hot water. It’s wrenching and beautiful.
As for the now-ubiquitous-at-weddings “I’ll Cover You,” Angel (Victor Lopez) and Tom Collins (Darryl Jones) have a charming playfulness that’s irresistible, Jones delivering a baritone with the depths of a diving pool, Lopez’s tenor layered over it. As the doomed (or maybe not) Mimi, Isis Elizabeth brings a catlike sensuality to the role that serves it well. Her howling “Out Tonight” is the sound of a Saturday night on the cusp of some kind of ecstasy.
Donnie Williams’s Mark holds the seasonally themed plot together, and the rapport he has with Karmis in “What You Own” is electric.
At the heart of Rent is the pushmi-pullyu we all experience between putting our hopes and dreams and actions toward “another day,” or jumping into the deep end with them feet first because tomorrow isn’t promised and there truly is “no day but today.” Surely there’s a middle ground somewhere between the two. Rent hasn’t found it.
But make no mistakes: With tickets at a suggested $20, Possibilities has gone a long, long way in erasing the irony of a show espousing the most anti-capitalist of views selling tickets for hundreds of dollars. (While there are some cheap balcony tickets available for the upcoming 25th anniversary tour of Rent with Broadway in Chicago, running October 5-10, if you want primo orchestra seats on a Saturday night, they’ll run you almost $150 before taxes and fees.) What they haven’t changed is the bubbling optimism at the show’s problematic core. There’s joy and esprit de corps overflowing at Possibilities. Those are the two most crucial elements of any production of Rent.
Through 8/21: Thu-Sat 7 PM, Northcenter Town Square, 4100 N. Damen (outside), firstname.lastname@example.org, $20 suggested donation.