KPBS AIRDATE: MARCH 17, 2000
For many San Diegans, ‘”Rent” was overdue. Now, it’s payback time. The blockbuster musical was a major sellout at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1997, riding on the crest of its wins of the Obie, Tony and Pulitzer Prizes, heralded as the best musical in decades. Now, you can settle the score (and hear it, too!). “Rent” is back, as the national tour makes a brief stop at the Civic Theatre, courtesy of San Diego Playgoers.
Of course, San Diego was on the map from the get-go, since “Rent’s” acclaimed director, Michael Greif, was also artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. Our inside connection scored us the West Coast premiere of the hip, brash rock opera. Surprisingly, since road shows aren’t always of the highest caliber, this new production is far better than the one in La Jolla. The cast is uniformly terrific; the singing, the moves and the energy are electrifying. This time, you’ve got to cash in and check out “Rent.”
The story, very loosely based on Puccini’s “La Boheme,” chronicles a year in the life of an eccentric, artistic bunch of New York bohemians, at the end of the millennium. They couple and uncouple, they brave the winter cold without heat, they try to kick drugs, survive AIDS and fight to maintain their crummy, crumbling apartment, from which they’re about to be evicted. In the title song, Mark, the budding filmmaker who’s recording it all, asks the haunting rhetorical question: “How do you document real life when life is getting more like fiction each day?”
Mark’s girlfriend, a performance artist, has just dumped him for a woman. Mark’s roommate, Roger, had a girlfriend who killed herself right after telling him they both have AIDS. Enter Mimi, a teenage waif struck by heroine, AIDS… and Roger. Then there’s Tom Collins, who’s mugged outside their door, but rescued by a drag queen named Angel. These are the central characters, each at times ridiculous and irresistible, trying to maintain their youthful impetuosity, their rebellious natures, their artistic values in a world gone mad. It’s easy to get sucked into their reality. So much so that, when Maureen does her bovine dreamscape performance piece, she actually gets everyone in the audience to “moo” along with her. The humor in the piece is far more evident in this production, so you get a rollicking, as well as a rocking, good time. It’s like a rock concert, with the hot band onstage, the singers clearly head-miked, belting right out to the audience, dancing, jumping and writhing MTV-style, climbing over the stark, metallic, street-rubble set.
But lurking in the background of this throbbing, pulsing celebration of life, there is the heartbreaking specter of death, both in the onstage story and the tragic back-story. The musical’s brilliant young, 35 year-old creator, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm, just before the show opened in New York. And there’s just one more sour note in an otherwise energizing evening. You walk out of the Civic Theatre, touched by a sense of love, loyalty and community, feeling that you’ve had a glimpse into another way of life, and then you’re bludgeoned by reality. There on the San Diego streets are the real homeless, huddled in doorways, sleeping on newspaper, and none of them jumps up to sing. We’ve all gotta pay, somehow. As the poverty-stricken artists put it, “everything is Rent.”
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.