By Barry Reszel
Jonathan Larson‘s beloved Rent, winner of four 2006 Tony’s including Best Musical and responsible for turning 525,600 into a new international standard measurement of time is no longer a teenager.
Twenty years have passed since the Broadway opening chronicling the number of minutes of a year in the lives of a group of impoverished artists and musicians dodging the landlord of their run-down lofts and homeless tent village on New York’s Lower East Side. It’s iconic, edgy and loosely based on Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini‘s “La Boheme” with a backdrop of the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the mid-late 1980s.
The current non-Equity production in Arlington Heights helps celebrate an anniversary of its own. Rent is part of the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre’s 15th anniversary season. As a first-time visitor to this venue at the press opening May 20, it was difficult not to feel envy for patrons living nearby for having such a gorgeous, state-of-the-art performing arts facility in this vibrant suburban downtown.
Indeed, much of this Lauren Rawitz-directed production is to be commended. The multi-ethnic cast looks splendid (helped by Cathy Tantillo‘s excellent costumes) and in place (thanks to the terrific multi-tiered set by Scenic Designer Ashley Woods). Rawitz uses every inch of the floor, stage, ladders, scaffolding and ceiling in inspired, varied staging. Similarly, Choreographer Jen Cupani‘s work is splendid and well-executed. In particular, the “La Vie Boheme” scene reminiscent of Leonardo Da Vinci‘s “Last Supper” painting is clever and thoughtful.
Characterization is solid, and risks Rawitz takes to divert from Rent-traditional body types and ethnicities work just fine, allowing this production to leave its own mark on the hallowed material. Music Director Alex Newkirk on keys combines with just bass and drums to offer more-than-adequate backup music.
All that said, with very few exceptions, the singing heard on May 20 was simply not up to professional standards. The best vocal work came in all-ensemble songs, particularly the iconic “Seasons of Love” that opens the second act. In addition, Derrick Mitchell as Benny and Jordan Harris as Tom Collins truly shine. But in truth, most solo and duet singing, which accounts for roughly three-quarters of the overall show, was off key, shouted, poorly nuanced and all together cringe-worthy. Because a quality musical must first be sung well, it’s impossible to recommend seeing this production.
Indeed, this Metropolis Rent is sandwiched on the performance calendar between a 20th anniversary national national tour with specifics still TBD, though its first listed shows are in October in Durham, NC (I kid you not), and Theo Ubique’s brilliant, sold-out and extended run this winter-into-spring (see our review here).
Unless somehow the singing on press night was an anomaly, the advice here, even for the most die-hard Rentheads, is to hope the tour rolls through Chicago.
Metropolis Performing Arts Centre presents “Rent” through July 3 at Metropolis, 111 West Campbell Street, Arlington heights. Tickets are $38 and available by calling (847) 577-2121 or online here.