Ford Center’s Rent offers a silver lining to recession woes with triple-threat talent

The Broadway musical transforms common problems with rent and relationships into an entertaining performance with members from the original cast.

By Jessen O'Brien

In the current economy, many people are struggling to pay their rent; naturally, few feel inspired to burst into song. But for the characters in Rent, playing at Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre, the seemingly indomitable challenges of paying rent, maintaining relationships, and enduring sickness are an occasion for singing and dancing.

The story of Rent has undergone several transformations. Playwright Jonathan Larson adapted Giacamo Puccini’s opera La Bohème—which itself was based on Henri Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème—into a Broadway musical in 1996. In 2005, Rent became a movie. Although the details and characters have changed, the essential theme of the importance of love and friendship in difficult times has remained relevant to all audiences.

Rent begins on Christmas Eve when Mark Cohen, a young filmmaker, decides to make a documentary about his friends. Over the course of a year, Mark records the lives of his friends, their struggles with AIDS, and fights with former friend, Benny Coffin III, over the rent. Thanks to his wealthy father-in-law, Benny has become landlord of the apartment where Mark lives with his roommate, musician Roger Davis. In defiance of one of Benny’s attempts to evict Mark and Roger, Mark’s ex-girlfriend, Maureen Johnson, stages a protest performance with the help of her girlfriend, lawyer Joanne Jefferson. On the night of the protest, Roger meets Mimi Marquez, a dancer at the Cat Scratch Club. Tom Collins, another friend of Mark’s, meets Angel Schunard, a drummer whose generous heart binds the group together throughout the trials of the year.

One challenge in an ensemble show such as Rent is that the entire cast is the star. It is difficult to convince an audience to care about eight different and unique characters in the span of about an hour. Each actor must be uniformly excellent or the entire show falls apart. The Broadway tour of Rent contains two of the original actors, Adam Pascal (Roger) and Anthony Rapp (Mark). Both also starred in the movie, but neither overpowers the more recent additions to the cast. The actors balance each other, knowing when to lead and when to support a scene.

Most musicals have separate singing and dancing leads that only dabble in each other’s fields, but another challenge in Rent is that every actor must do both equally well. Lexi Lawson’s performance as Mimi is particularly impressive as she easily transitions between singing fast rock songs and slow ballads while exuberantly carrying the best lead dancing part in the musical. Adam Pascal plays the guitar and Justin Johnston (Angel) the drums in addition to singing and dancing.

Somewhat unusually, the orchestra plays onstage, woven into part of the scaffolding that meanders across the sparse stage and is threaded with twinkle lights. Additionally, some microphones and guitars stand on stage in anticipation of a few of the musical numbers. The floor and walls are black, with the exception of a few white murals painted onto the black brick wall at the back of the set. With the help of a few props, such as tables and chairs, the cast transforms the stage from outdoors to indoors, the street to an apartment to a café.

Several lighting effects make the show particularly magical. For instance, the twinkle lights glow enchantingly when needed. Often, only a spotlight brightens the stage. In “One Song Glory,” it creates a large silhouette of Roger against the brick wall, simultaneously emphasizing Roger’s individuality and the universality of his struggles. The beginning of the show starts with all the lights in the theater shining as Mark explains his plan to film his friends. As soon as his filming begins, the house lights turn off, marking the end of his preface. At the end of the show, Mark uses a projector to show clips from his film, skating the images across the walls of the theater and into the audience as he shares these parts of his life.

Although the production is very strong, there is room for improvement. The sound could be stronger, as the words are sometimes difficult to understand. In “Contact,” a spotlight directly faces the audience, blinding them. Maureen’s protest number, “Over the Moon,” may be a good example of performance art, but is nevertheless both a little too bizarre and a little too long for most audience members.

Despite these moments, the Broadway tour of Rent is an entertaining production. The sorrows and successes of the eight friends alternately sadden and uplift the audience, but always provide a welcome distraction to one’s own rent and relationship challenges.