Thursday 6 August 1998

Rent! explodes with energy
Raunchy, raucous and rocking, you know right away Rent! is going to be one hell of a show, Janice Kennedy writes.

Janice Kennedy
The Ottawa Citizen

Since the Canadian version of Rent! opened in Toronto, Canadians Cary Shields and Saskia Garel have taken over the pivotal roles of musician Roger and exotic dancer Mimi.

The cast of Rent! display the infectious enthusiasm they're known for, right from the first bars of the opening song.

There is a moment in Rent!, the boisterous musical that opened at the National Arts Centre Tuesday night, when you know absolutely that you are going to be in for an extraordinary night.

It happens all of three minutes into the show, just after the motley character crew has drifted onto the set (a fabulously blighted urban landscape of grey brick and fire escapes) and been sketchily introduced.

Three minutes, tops.

Then the space, even a dignified hall like the NAC Opera, suddenly explodes with the title song, surely one of the most exciting musical openings ever crafted, and it's a foregone conclusion: Raunchy, raucous and rocking, this is going to be one hell of a show.

Indeed it is, since there is one adjective you can hang unequivocally on Rent!, the multi-million dollar Mirvish production that is kicking off its national tour in Ottawa -- where even the customarily reserved opening-night audience leaped as one to its collective feet at the show's close, without a single sideward glance to see who was getting up first.

That one adjective? Explosive.

The late Jonathan Larson's musical vision of contemporary bohemia, loosely modelled on Puccini's opera, all but rocks the stage off its moorings with an aggressively millennial tale of love and loss in New York's East Village.

And instead of genteel poets singing sweetly about tiny hands being frozen, a la Puccini, Larson (whose work picked up multiple awards, including four 1996 Tonys and the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for drama) peopled his modern rock opera with a musician kicking a heroin habit, an exotic dancer still hooked on hers, a hopeful young film-maker, a drag queen, a flamboyantly bisexual performance artist, a lesbian lawyer with a social conscience, a disillusioned academic/activist, a chorus of homeless people, mean-street thugs and, over everything, the emotional pall of desperation, pain and loss in the age of AIDS.

The show made its Canadian debut at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre last December with a largely Canadian cast, and played to enthusiastic audiences there for eight months. It was wonderful then, and it is, if anything, even more wonderful now, since the same company is now in Ottawa.

There have been two cast changes since the show opened in Toronto, and top marks are due in both cases. Replacing Americans Krysten Cummings and Luther Creek in the pivotal roles of exotic dancer Mimi and musician Roger are Canadian performers Saskia Garel and Cary Shields.

The transition is seamless. Shields is a slightly less brooding, more sensitive Roger than Creek, but he is every bit as effective dramatically and musically. His opening One Song Glory is a powerfully soulful tribute to artistic hope.

And Garel's Mimi is a treasure, pure and simple. Her Out Tonight, a high-energy come-on to Roger that is unabashedly feral, may not reach quite the vocal wildness of Cummings' version, but it is richer. Garel's voice is a dynamite blend of strength and beauty, and when she gets a chance to really put it on display -- as in Light My Candle or the wrenching Without You -- the results are powerful.

Are there any other individually memorable moments in the show? You bet. About two-and-a-half hours' worth of them: Jai Rodriguez's marvellous drag queen Angel, any time (s)he appears, all heart and tart sassiness; the hauntingly moving musical affirmations by those living with ("Not dying from") AIDS; the exuberant physical comedy, and fine voices, of Tango Maureen, in which the bisexual Maureen's current lover Joanne (Karen Leblanc) and her former lover Mark (Chad Richardson) compare notes during an incongruous dance; the gloriously tender I'll Cover You, sung by Angel and his lover Collins (Danny Blanco, in a warm and lovely bass); the utterly amazing "performance piece," Over the Moon, performed by the utterly amazing Jenifer Aubry; the wildly colourful La Vie Boheme, complete with original table choreography, sung by the whole company; the anthemic Seasons of Love ("525,600 do you measure, measure a year?") that opens the second act and helps close it, in luxuriously interwoven harmony with the show's other anthemic tune and lyric, the stirring refrain, "No day but today."

That is one of the other interesting things about Rent! Apart from the tone of unrestrained and wild celebration, there is also a broad vein of marked seriousness. Larson may have been exulting in life and all that is decent and hopeful about it, but he made sure his musical also had plenty to say about its darker side -- about exploitation and intolerance, about social conscience, about the unavoidable pain of human existence. And Rent! does as much justice to those areas as to the exuberant ones.

It is a moment that is both chilling and heartbreaking when the AIDS victims sing, in soft and haunting melody, "Will I lose my dignity?/Will someone care?/Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?"

It is worth noting -- since tickets range up beyond the $80 mark -- that Rent! is not a show for everybody. Don't waste your money if: you have little patience for alternative lifestyles and diverse sex styles; you don't appreciate music that is in-your-face and often very, very loud; the word "vulgar" occupies a prominent spot in your vocabulary of disapproval.

On the other hand, if you think your entertainment dollar is well spent on a show that is endlessly imaginative, that joyfully validates youth even as it makes the less young among us feel about 20 years old again, by all means, dig deep into those pockets.

Like an extended seismic jolt, the show is everything that is most thrilling about musical theatre, a medium that does, on the evidence offered here, have a bright and vibrant future.

Way, way up there on the artistic Richter scale, Rent! is the happiest of musical explosions.

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Rent! is on in the Opera of the National Arts Centre through Aug. 23. Tickets are $37.50-$81.50, available in person at the NAC box office or, with surcharges, through TicketMaster (755-1111). Thirty-one front-row seats are also available for $20. These are sold shortly before showtime, in person only at the NAC box office, but getting them usually involves lining up for hours.