Monday, February 27, 2012

Low-Rent

I went to see the production, in San Antonio, of Rent, the Tony-award winning musical* from the mid-1990s. Written by Jonathan Larson, who died the day before the show opened off Broadway, Rent is a re-telling of La bohème, with AIDS filling in for tuberculosis and New York's Alphabet City filling in for the slums of Paris. 

I have to wonder: I've never seen La bohème; are the characters in Puccini's opera as individually repulsive as their counterparts are in Rent? We have Angel, the pathetic drag queen who is the neighbourhood's soul; he takes in a young man who's been mugged, kills another man's dog out of spite, and then dies of AIDS. We're supposed to mourn his passing. We have Maureen, the inconsiderate, self-absorbed bisexual who uses sex as a weapon with both male and female partners. She is supposed to represent something good. We have Mimi, the crack whore who seduces her neighbour, then dumps him (despite being in love with him, as he is with her) to sleep with Benny, the landlord. We have Benny, who used to be one of the bohemian artists at the center of the play, but he turned traitor by marrying money and buying the building they all lived in. He is the villian of the piece at the beginning, but after Angel kills his dog ("I never liked that dog anyway") he is redeemed by cheating on his wife with the crack whore. We have Roger, who falls in love with Mimi, then runs away to open a restaurant in Santa Fe when things get hairy. When he fails at that, as he has failed at everything else (at the start of the play, he's been writing one song for a year), he comes back to New York to start a rock band. We have Joanne, the sassy public-interest lawyer who's wrapped around Maureen's finger, even as she knows she's being manipulated. And we have Mark, the narrator, Maureen's jilted lover who still has a soft spot in his heart for her. He wants to be a video-journalist or something, and insists on shoving his camera in everybody's face. He gets lucky, captures a small local riot on video, and is offered a paying job in television, which he takes, then quits because he wants to live the bohemian life with his sleazy friends. It really makes me appreciate the virtues of bourgeois living. 

That aside, it's a well-written story. The music is passable despite its overblown operatic style, and the harmonies are well made, and at times compelling; there is, though, no song that stays with you after you leave the show. Seasons of Love, the opening song of the second act, comes closest, but its lyrics are, unfortunately, inane compared to most of the book. 

And as a bonus, everyone in the local cast can actually sing, for real; not a frequent experience in San Antonio theater. (It is, despite its population, a small town.)

The Woodlawn Theater is one of several in town that operate on shoestring budgets, and with that consideration in the forefront of my mind I will admit that this production was something of a triumph of will, as most such ventures are around here. Still, there are things that could have been done much better.

The stage at the Woodlawn is too large for the director's imagination. This results in a lot of wandering around by the cast, as they have such a long way to go to get on and off the stage, and at times they seem to be simply milling around as though lost in the vastness of the space. The set is overly elaborate, and seems to have been designed and built before the staging was decided. There are a lot of things on stage that seem to have no purpose; I don't know: maybe they're just there in a vain attempt to cut down on the space with strategic clutter. The lighting was effective but uninspired, and the sound (the music was all recorded; live musicians are too expensive for small theaters like this) was blared too loudly for comfort, by maybe two clicks on the volume control. Not a serious problem, except in scenes where several songs are being sung at once. The loudness of the music in those instances made it impossible to understand any of the words.


* It's not a musical; it's a damn opera.

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