As the curtain rises, the audience is greeted by grimy brick walls, cracked pipes, and a handful of ragged individuals huddled together on the street trying in vain to elicit some act of charity from apathetic passers-by. This is Alphabet City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the setting for Jonathan Larson’s hit musical “Rent,” recreated in Boston’s New Repertory Theatre until September 25. Director Benjamin Evett and a strong ensemble make an admirable attempt to tell Larson’s story of love in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, but the production is overrun by technical issues that threaten to undermine the show’s strengths.
“Rent” follows the lives of a group of impoverished artists struggling to survive and create in bohemian Alphabet City, all while coping with the HIV/AIDS pandemic rapidly taking over the streets of New York. Roger (Robert St. Laurence), an HIV-positive musician, falls in love with Mimi (Eve Kagan) a club dancer with a debilitating heroin habit who shares his disease. Tom (Maurice Parent), a gay anarchist with AIDS, explores a relationship with Angel (Nick Sulfaro), a young drag queen who strives to remain optimistic about his experience with the disease. The interplay within the group is filmed and narrated by Roger’s roommate Mark (John Ambrosino), who hides behind his camera to avoid any emotional involvement. The premise of the musical is rife with potential to make many different emotions tangible for the audience, but the production suffers from a number of crippling setbacks that stunt the show’s emotional development.
The rock musical’s hard-hitting ballads are overshadowed by a flurry of missed lyrics and technical issues. An enormously distracting dose of microphone feedback hangs in the air throughout the show, and worsens during the musical numbers’ vocal peaks. The louder songs are not the only elements of the show that are marred by technical issues. The performance’s softer moments are overpowered by the onstage orchestra, which renders the more hushed vocals almost inaudible.
St. Laurence’s performance as Roger is almost as disastrous as the sound blunders. Between botched lyrics, weak vocals, and moments of blatant overacting, the audience is left to digest a rather uninspiring performance from one of the musical’s most recognizable characters. Roger is one of the stronger male characters—brooding and complex, often with a soulful tenor voice to match—but St. Laurence fails to animate any such profundity in his performance.
These missteps are lamentable, simply because many of the musical numbers are nothing short of brilliant. The ensemble’s interpretation of “Seasons of Love”—complete with a montage featuring the names of some of the victims of the HIV/AIDS virus—is heartfelt and sincere. Aimee Doherty’s reinvention of the free-sprited Maureen’s iconic “Over the Moon,” in which she attempts to save the group’s performance space from destruction, is charmingly quirky, while the ensemble bursts with contagious energy in “La Vie Boheme.” On an individual level, Ambrosino’s endearing antics and clear, steady voice seem to right the struggling performance whenever it falters.
The space in which they are acting bolsters the group’s performance. The stage itself is small, and dozens of cast members navigate it in elaborate patterns to avoid colliding with one another—a daring artistic decision in an ensemble piece, but one which effectively imitates the crowded streets of New York.
The continuing popularity of “Rent” stems from dual causes: the musical both subverts prevalent social mores and touches on issues—death, love, and addiction—that people can connect to on an emotional level. Although the company makes a valiant effort, foundational issues—much like the devastating virus at the heart of the production—corrupt what could otherwise be a powerful performance.
—Staff writer Charlotte D. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.