Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Scott Weinstein
Musical Direction by Jeremy Ramey
Choreography by Daniel Spagnuolo
Produced by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, Chicago
A Rent with Perspective
If you’ve followed the recent Chicagoland musical scene, you know that Marriott Theatre recently staged a new production of Spring Awakening which dispensed with the show’s agit-prop aspects in favor of character-driven storytelling. In a production also starring Patrick Rooney, director Scott Weinstein does the same for Rent at Theo Ubique. Jonathan Larson’s adaptation of La bohème, which is now twenty years old or more, depending on how you count, was a smash-hit when it debuted and has remained popular ever since, but as it aged, the anger driving it faded. Since the mere depiction of gay people and mentioning of HIV-AIDS is no longer significant in itself, Weinstein’s cast goes much deeper in developing their characters, providing Rent with the emotional heft to remain relevant in 2016. Add to it Jeremy Ramey’s always meticulously balanced musical direction of Larson’s famous rock songs, and you have a magnificent production.
The No Exit Café is certainly among the more distinctive of the Chicago venues, and while it presents all sorts of difficulties in terms of staging and comfort, it’s visually already an appropriate location for a story that takes place in Alphabet City in the early 1990s. Set designer Adam Veness assembled a crew of street artists to provide colorful murals on the interior. Props designer Katie Beeks papered the walls with posters from Roger Davis’s (Rooney) concerts, which is an important moment for establishing his character before the show even begins. In the opening minutes, we come to understand that Roger was a respected and productive musician prior to his girlfriend’s suicide, discovering he has HIV, and going through a long, painful detoxification. Rooney sings “One Song Glory” as if Roger is still a little unsteady on his feet when agitated, which in no way detracts from his vocal quality. Mark (Matt Edmonds) is excited to see Roger trying to play music again, and encourages him by making the event the first shot of his film, which will document the lives of his friends over the next year.
The other characters also benefit from sacrificing flashy staging of their songs for more nuanced interpretations of their feelings. Particularly noteworthy is that Aubrey McGrath plays the gender-bending musician Angel as an actual person who feels emotions like surprise, anger, and sadness, instead of as a martyr icon. His “Today 4 U” is the perfect way to cheer someone up, and he looks sincerely interested when Collins (Chuckie Benson) makes references to computers. Speaking of the philosopher, Benson’s Collins is a clever, good-humored man who seems to recognize while singing “Santa Fe” with Angel that he needs to rethink his life if they’re going to have a future together, which leads naturally into a sweet and hopeful “I’ll Cover You.”
Nicole Michelle Haskins accomplishes the difficult task of making Harvard lawyer JoAnne fit into the group of Bohemians. Her “Tango: Maureen” with Mark shows both her playful wit and resentment, but her “We’re Okay” demonstrates how she’s well-practiced in calming herself down and behaving maturely. Her “Take Me or Leave Me” is still very satisfying, though, and was a long time coming. Maureen is usually played by Courtney Jones, but I went on a night Ella Pennington was filling in (very well), so I can’t really judge what Weinstein found in the show’s trickiest character. But, perhaps because I was seated right next to the payphone, I did notice that Rent was one of the earliest musicals in which the characters confuse themselves by trying to maintain conversations on multiple mobile devices. It makes sense if most of the people Maureen knows have difficulty managing their lives even without always being in touch with each other for her to be afraid of Benny’s plan for a “cyber-studio” (which I picture as a row of Power Macintoshes and posters with Y2K protocols). The aspiring artistic producer Benny is played by Jaymes Osborne as smug, but a little clueless about how to put himself back in his friends’ good graces. As the go-go dancer Mimi, Savannah Hoover adds vulnerability to a character usually played with obnoxious overconfidence. “Light My Candle” provides her and Roger with an unexpected emotional outlet, which within the context of the play, justifies their sudden connection.
All of the work on deepening their characters wouldn’t have been valuable if the cast’s musical direction wasn’t spot-on, but in that regard, Jeremy Ramey’s conduction amply supports them. He leads a four-person orchestra tucked away in the corner, and though the sound balance in the No Exit Café varies a great deal depending on where a particular audience member sits, the musicians were very careful to not overpower the singers. For some people, that may be the most surprising thing about this production: this Rent is quiet and introspective. But it’s still passionate, and the reduced volume allows complex pieces like “Christmas Bells” to be appreciated fully, while still supporting the rousing ballads “Seasons of Love” and “La Vie Bohème.” Weinstein’s prominent featuring of 90s communication devices acknowledges that Rent takes place in a past era, but Theo Ubique’s production raised funds for the AIDS-related local charity Vital Bridges. Since the issues Rent explores are still around, albeit in different forms, delving into it to find what in the characters is universal allows it to become timeless.
Reviewed March 18, 2016
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see Rent’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at the No Exit Café, 6970, N Glenwood Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $39-44 with discounts for students and seniors. Dinner available with advance reservations for $25 additional per person. Unsold tickets are $15 at door for students with college ID, cash only, subject to availability. To order, call 800-595-4849 or visit theo-u.com. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 7:00 pm through May 1. Running time is two hours and thirty minutes, with one intermission.