Turn Down for What?: U-M’s production of “Rent” brightened the corners of the play's darker edges
For me, it’s telling that the most moving moment of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s production of Rent on April 15 came via a curtain call reprise of the show’s iconic song, “Seasons of Love.”
Having taken their bows, the performers slowly clustered together in the middle of the stage, and you could palpably feel the camaraderie among them. That camaraderie didn’t radiate from their characters, but from their real-life experiences as college students, including graduating seniors, who’ve grown close while training and building on shows like this one. The warmth coming from that stage made my hair stand on end.
And in keeping with the program’s esteemed national reputation, the students had hit their marks and their notes (well, most of them) all evening. So why exactly did this polished production feel … well, too buttoned up and tame?
For one thing, sound-level choices were an issue. When I see Rent, I inevitably want to feel its often hard-driving music in my body because the show is meant to be an in-your-face, rock concert-like experience. (Green Day’s American Idiot, among others, would later follow suit.)
Rent’s characters are young and emotionally raw, almost feral, and its sound levels tend to mimic and aurally project their confrontational vibe. However, U-M’s production was muted to the point that I strained to hear many individual lyrics, including the usually-raucous showpiece, “La Vie Bohème,” a list song that really loses its punch when you can’t make out its pop culture references.
Plus, while Rent stands as a haunted postcard from the heart of the AIDS crisis—when a positive diagnosis was equated with a death sentence—U-M’s take often pulled back from the show’s dark, sharp edges and offered a rendition that was reverent and beautifully sung, but disappointingly toothless.
Inspired by Puccini’s opera La Bohème with a book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, Rent tells the story of aspiring young artists squatting in a Greenwich Village building. At the start, filmmaker Mark (Ethan Van Slyke) is getting over a breakup with flirty performance artist Maureen (Cecilia Petrush), who’s left him for an attorney named Joanne (Alex Humphreys). Mark’s roommate Roger (Hoke Faser), a blocked rock musician, is recovering from addiction, his girlfriend’s suicide, and an AIDS diagnosis when a sexy neighbor, Mimi (Sofia Victoria Deler), barges into his life. A former roommate, philosophy lecturer Tom Collins (Sevon Askew), gets help, post-mugging, from a sunny drag queen named Angel (Timmy Thompson), and the two fall in love. And another former roommate, Benny (Ryo Kamibayashi), has married rich and bought the building, making him the villain who’s demanding rent.
Director Devanand Janki made staging choices with an eye toward defying audience expectations. Most notably, he eschewed the “Seasons of Love” company front that’s come to feel compulsory, but the emotional impact of these new approaches was hit-or-miss.
Admittedly, the hits were lovely. Thankfully, Maureen’s over-the-top protest performance (“Over the Moon”) was as absurd and funny as ever, thanks largely to Petrush’s brilliant, earnest delivery. A goosebump-inducing vocal ensemble moment arrived by way of the reprise of “I’ll Cover You”; and as the beating heart of the show, Thompson, as Angel, offered one of the evening’s strongest overall performances. (Again, I just wish the volume had been increased on up-tempo numbers like “Today for You.”)
Scenic designer Kevin Judge, along with lighting designer Abi Farnsworth, kept the show’s look gritty and spare, with a twinkle light-adorned chain link fence backdrop suggesting the presence of hope in the coldest, hardest urban spaces.
Meanwhile, my favorite moment of Robert Tatad’s choreography came by way of the cheeky “Tango: Maureen”; and costume designer Matthew Eggers broke from expectations, too, while finding new expressions of era and character.
In the end, though, U-M’s Rent, a show about young people pushing against the constraints of conventional society, seemed oddly hampered by its own desire to not repel or offend.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.