Syracuse Stage and SU Drama conspire for the exuberant life-and-death rock opera Rent
Earlier planners at Syracuse Stage used to call January the “suicide slot.” With older subscribers snowbirding it south and locals sometimes too timid to venture out on frigid nights, almost anything Syracuse Stage attempted faced rows and rows of empty seats. As you may have heard, however, the current production of Jonathan Larson’s rock opera Rent is all but sold out. Many companies want to run the hottest ticket at the end of the season, to encourage resubscription. By placing Rent in the icy middle of the season, the whole of Syracuse Stage nudges toward a different identity.
Having run in New York City for 12 years and having won almost every available prize, including the Pulitzer, Rent arrives in town as a known quantity. The fanatical fans, Rentheads, should be pleased, and yet what they encounter is considerably different from many previous productions.
Let’s start with sound. This is a co-production with the Syracuse University Drama Department, which means that director-choreographer Anthony Salatino is in charge, as he has been in the decade of family musicals that started with Peter Pan in the December slot. Although a dancer himself, Salatino thinks words are important. That means every major player comes equipped with a headset, and musical director Sarah Pickett, leading an on-stage ensemble of five, gears back the volume.
Composer and lyricist Jonathan Larson famously proclaimed that he wanted Rent to be the Hair for the MTV generation. But he also wanted it to be an opera, somewhat the way Jesus Christ Superstar is, rather than a Broadway musical. Audiences may momentary forget that the storyline is based on Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, but co-lead Roger (Ken Clark) is often playing chords from that score as he warms up. An opera in Puccini’s time, when labor was cheap, meant a huge cast, 35 speaking roles with a large supporting ensemble. If this was not an SU Drama co-production with students for all but eight roles, this mounting would be unthinkable. Because of Salatino’s decision, we now have a better handle on some of those subtle relationships.
Rent is an opera in a more important way in that its book, or libretto, exists to showcase individual musical numbers. Power solos win more audience response and applause than plot twists, who will or will not be evicted, fall in or fall out of love. The 45 musical numbers feel as though they existed before the story was constructed rather than having grown out of it.
As successful and beloved as the December family musicals have been, Rent marks a new maturity for SU Drama. We knew it was coming when David Wanstreet’s Cabaret (October) and Felix Ivanov’s Jungalbook (November) became two of the most acclaimed and talked-about productions of the last year. In the December family musicals the students were usually the chorus, but here they take on all kinds of roles so that it’s impossible to tell, with the exception of very youthful cheeks, where the Equity professionals begin.
In Puccini’s day the Bohemian quarter was populated with refugees from a failed rebellion in what is now the Czech Republic, or the poorest people that could be found in all of Paris. Disaffected children from privileged families moved there and assumed the styles of the neighborhood. Like the white male protagonists of Rent, author Larson fled the hated suburbs to the East Village where he readily embraced social, cultural, racial and gender differences. All those different kinds of faces, of course, give a composer a wider range of idioms to pursue.
The painter Marcello from the original has become Mark (Stanley Bahorek) the filmmaker, and Roger, a songwriter, is based on Rodolpho the poet. It is somewhat nerdy Mark who comes up with the conceit to organize the contemporary story, a film that will record the events of the year, starting with Christmas. Mark’s ex-girlfriend, the explo sive performance artist Maureen (Hannah Shankman), is much talked about before she appears. Deeply desired, she is also fickle, having betrayed Mark regularly, finally with another woman, Joanne (Rashidra Scott), an Ivy-educated lesbian public interest lawyer. She’s adapted from Musetta in Puccini, whose famous waltz is here transformed into “Tango Maureen,” one of the show-stoppers.
Roger’s new love is Mimi Márquez (Jené Hernandez), a club dancer and drug-addict. The dance at her entrance, staged on a balcony, is one of Salatino’s most stirring contributions. They are visited by Tom Collins (Jordan Barbour), a gay anarchist and computer whiz, who brings along his love Angel (Jose Sepulveda), a short, blond-wigged drag queen. Inserting tension to this ensemble is the traitorous Benjamin or Benny (Antwayn Hopper), once a roommate of Roger, Mark, Collins and Maureen who has married into society, wears a neat gray suit and now lives in the loathed suburbs. Worse, he has become the intransigent landlord of the building whose demand to raise the rent could drive everyone out onto to the cold street. The Rent of the title embodies a pun, also meaning “torn apart.”
Not that Benny is denied his moments to soar. This was the role sung by our own SU Drama alum Taye Diggs in the original Broadway production. As seen here, Hopper’s Benny impresses most when he leads the ensemble in “You’ll See” in the middle of the first act.
While Mark nominally leads the action, fielding annoying calls from his mother (Katie LaMark), more of our attention flows to the growing relationship of Roger and Mimi, with some of the most interesting musical num bers.
Their quiet duet, “Light My Candle,” is actually adapted directly from Puccini. “Out Tonight” and “Without You” would make a compelling show all by themselves.
Removed from the love stories, three players make especially strong impressions, the diminutive drag queen Angel in the duets with his boisterous lover Collins, “You Okay, Honey” and “I’ll Cover You.” Collins has an even bigger moment reprising “I’ll Cover You” in the second act. The incomparable Maureen, arguable the juiciest role in the show, scores with the over-the-top performance art number, “Over the Moon,” with its loopy Laurie Anderson-ish lyrics.
Audiences who remember Rent from the cavernous Nederlander Theatre, or even the Famous Artists production in the Mulroy Civic Center’s 2,000-seat Crouse-Hinds Theater will be pleased at how vivid and fresh the show feels in the 499-seat Archbold. And as high as the SU Drama Department production standards have risen, the Syracuse Stage aegis is what brings aboard set designer Troy Hourie, who creates so many intimate places in sequence, up and down fire escapes, as well as the markers of the seasons. Jessica Ford’s costumes define contrasts, sorting out the large casting with visual markers. Dawn Chiang’s lighting creates depth in small spaces.
The calendar has been transformed. With a dozen big musicals from the last two decades, Syracuse Stage now has the means to turn the January slot into the biggest draw of the year. Billy Elliott anyone? Can Spider-Man be far behind?
This production runs through Feb. 13. See Times Table for information.
A year to remember: Cast members of the Syracuse Stage-SU Drama co-production of Rent.