Rent Remains True With Creative Staging and Lighting

"December 24th, 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. From here on out I shoot without a script." Mark, an amateur filmmaker and one of the main characters in "Rent," begins the musical with a reflection on the beginning of the end of the 20th century, in which New York City’s young artists struggled to find meaning in their lives despite poverty and disease. Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club production of "Rent" ran in the OBERON from December 6 to December 12 and included many bold staging and lighting choices. Director Anna G. Kelsey '14 had to work with the unconventional stage organization at the OBERON, and made decisions that brought nuance to an often-performed musical. However, these choices seemed to enhance the cast’s energy and the end result was a production that remained true to Jonathan Larson’s original characters.

The vocal talent of the ensemble cast was the most impressive aspect of the show. Vocal execution is essential to any staging of "Rent" because the rock opera’s ballads are its heart and soul, and a substantial number of songs involve collaboration between characters. One particularly successful vocal pairing was that of Mark (Jacob A. Brandt '14) and his friend Roger (Berklee student Jake Ohlbaum). Their "What You Own" was great not only because they have excellent voices, but because each was able to rely on the other for timing and onstage chemistry. Every scene with Mark and Roger flowed very well, and the two actors were able to give and take energy and presence from each other.

Equally impressive were the numbers that brought together the majority or entirety of the cast, most notably "Will I?" and "Seasons Of Love." Music directors Mark R. Parker '12-'13 and Kyra A. Atekwana '14 coached the ensemble pieces to precision which made both of these renditions startling and touching. This is not to say that individual cast members did not stand out in certain pieces. Though the strong harmonies and clear vocals were impressive in and of themselves, it was the solo vocals of Kimberly A. M. Onah '15 in "Seasons of Love" that made the collaborative piece truly outstanding. The notes Onah proved able to hit made her stand out from the group harmonies, which were fantastic in their own right.

Kelsey's cast gave the show everything they had, and their sustained energy carried the show from start to finish. In every aspect of the performance, the actors were incredibly well timed—the cast kept up relentless dancing and singing despite the length of the show and remained in sync for complicated routines like the dance segments in "Tango: Maureen" and "Contact." The cast’s energy in the bigger numbers was incredible, as was especially evident in "La Vie Boheme," the table-stomping, fist-pumping crown jewel of the production.

OBERON's stage was the perfect home for this production. Instead of amphitheater-like seating, the club seats the audience at round tables interspersed throughout the room, which allowed the actors to move about the audience. Kelsey succeeded in finding innovative ways to use the layout of the OBERON to her advantage. In the opening number, disgruntled tenants were able to run and twirl in the aisles while others took to the balconies to roar their discontent. In fact, Kelsey staged a fair amount of action on the balconies of the club, which gave the audience multiple perspectives from which they could view the actors. Kelsey and choreographer Sofie A. R. Seymour '15 deserve an enormous amount of credit for adapting the musical to this unconventional set-up so well.

The OBERON’s club atmosphere also came in handy in the lighting for some of the pieces. During "Christmas Bells," a light directed at the giant disco ball simulated snow. While many of the choices might have seemed out of place in a different production of "Rent," the lighting brought nuance to this version of the musical and made the production as a whole vibrant and fresh. Yasmeen E. Audi '15 played the spirited Mimi whose solo piece, "Out Tonight," was bolder and livelier as a result of the colorful pulsing lights that reflected off of the many mirrors of the disco club. In "Contact," the sexual energy radiated off of the stage as glaring red lights highlighted the writhing and grinding bodies seeking release.

Due to the director’s nuanced staging and lighting choices, the lighting additions and fragmented staging did not detract from the poignancy of Larson's original characters. It was the energy of the actors and the power of their singing that ensured that the spirit of the musical remained. Larson's lyrics and characters are still relevant today, and the enormously talented director and cast made sure that this classic could not have been anything less than excellent.

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