(This is Jerry's review of the original Fighting Chance production from 2009).
Producer/director Ryan Mooney and his Fighting Chance Productions have taken a real chance with Rent, putting up a large-scale musical in the cramped confines of Presentation House. Working with a five-piece band and a young cast of eleven plus a number of swing performers, nearly all with little professional experience, Mooney has done wonders. This is a sharp, entertaining show that has justifiably been selling out and is holding over for an additional week.
New Yorker Jonathon Larson’s contemporary take on Puccini’s La Bohème, Rent follows a group of young people living in lower Manhattan in the late 1990s. There’s a drag queen, a heroin-addicted exotic dancer, a rock guitarist, a filmmaker, gay and lesbian couples, a social activist, and a number of characters with AIDS. One former friend has gone capitalist. He aims to redevelop the neighbourhood as condos, catalyzing the others to resist and embrace their bohemian community and its values. At its best the show presents a stirring portrait of young urban America; at its worst it’s an extended, sentimental episode of Friends with songs.
Mooney does a nice job of keeping cast members from bumping into each other on the small stage with nothing but a table to provide levels. There are few great voices in the cast; but whatever the group may lack in pure vocal quality, they more than make up in energy and commitment.
At the centre of the action is Mark, the play’s narrator, with his omnipresent camera. Anton Lipovetsky has a relaxed, charming manner, and his Mark anchors the show very successfully. As Mark’s musician roommate Roger, Craig DeCarlo has a strong rock voice but his romance with the lovely druggy dancer Mimi (Christine Quintana) never quite catches fire. Kholby Wardell has some strong moments in the underwritten role of their capitalist ex-friend Benjamin.
Some of the best work comes from the same-sex couples. Cesar Erba is a dynamic performer and dancer, but his drag queen Angel suffers from the muddiest miked sound in the show—and that’s saying something. Much of the show is made virtually incomprehensible by the terrible amplification. Nick Fontaine does a nice job as Angel’s butch lover, Tom. Their love duet, “I’ll Cover You,” is a highlight. Jenn Suratos has probably the best voice in the cast (and I don’t say that just because she works alongside me at UBC). As lawyer Joanne, she has two of the show’s best numbers: the multiple phone solo “We’re Okay” and her duet with Mark, “Tango: Maureen.” Midway through the first act, it really gets the audience engaged. The Maureen of note, Joanne’s girlfriend, performance-artist-turned-social-activist, has this production’s showstopper. Jacqueline Breakwell is absolutely brilliant singing and dancing Maureen’s protest song, “Over the Moon.”
The other cast members all get their chances. Shining in smaller roles the night I saw the show were Amanda Engel as Mark’s mother, Erin Kanygin as a network shill, and Hal Rogers as a squeegee kid. The ensemble does excellent work on the title song as well as “Will I,” “La Vie Bohème,” and “Seasons of Love.”
I’ve never been a big fan of Rent but seeing this production made me reconsider. Despite the horrible sound, its intimate setting, intelligent staging and passionate performances make this a Rent to remember.