Rent intermittently reaches the 1996 rock opera's original heights

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      Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Richard Berg. Choreographed by Shelley Stewart Hunt. An URP production. At the Centennial Theatre on November 16. Continues until November 20

      When the musical Rent premiered on Broadway in 1996, it took the world by storm with its insightful commentary on urban New York life in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. Today, Vancouver theatre fans, especially those too young to have seen the original production, will appreciate URP’s current rendition, which offers shades of the original. However, URP’s production doesn’t quite live up to the legacy of Rent, falling short in many important details.

      The entirely sung-through rock opera by Jonathan Larson is a loose retelling of Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème. Set in the late ’80s/early ’90s in Manhattan’s East Village, Rent chronicles a year in the life of a group of friends. The show’s characters—including a filmmaker, a musician, an exotic dancer, and a drag queen—echo the impoverished 19th-century artists of La Bohème.

      There are times when you feel the thrill of iconic Rent moments, such as the opening keyboard chords of “La Vie Bohème”, as the characters situate themselves across the show’s famous long table at the end of Act 1. The industrial-feeling set re-creates an East Village loft with large, churchlike windows and cracked walls to conjure shades of 19th-century European architecture (in homage to La Bohème). The glow of neon lights add to the rock-concert feel, befitting the riffs the cast belt out as they tackle Larson’s challenging score.

      In the role of Collins, Chris Olson’s soulful voice is a highlight. Olson’s emotional character journey—both joyous and heartbreaking—is evident in every note he sings, whether he’s gently delivering a phrase or belting through the rafters. As Maureen, Synthia Yusuf brings “Over the Moon” energy and comic flair, mastering Larson’s intricate lyrics and quick phrases. As the show’s narrator, Mark, Nick Hefflefinger has the vocal chops and stage presence to carry the show and often holds the audience captive with the sparkle in his eyes.

      Where the show falters is in important details. In his opening introduction, Mark says, “Inside, we are freezing because we have no heat,” yet everyone on-stage looks perfectly fine—no signs of being cold. Ali Watson’s Mimi is far too upbeat and healthy-looking to believably portray the drug-addicted, AIDS-stricken Mimi. When she bounces around the stage in “Light My Candle”, she looks so physically fit that it seems odd when Roger identifies her as a junkie.

      Another confusing element of the show is Collins’s mugging at the beginning of Act 1. Olson has to mime his character being mugged, since no actor actually mugs him. Not only is this strange, but he also doesn’t look like he’s in very rough shape afterwards.

      The sound regularly cut out on this night, including in key moments such as the ending of “Seasons of Love”. And it’s frequently difficult to understand what the actors are singing about. Additionally, director Richard Berg’s staging doesn’t always make clear which of the many actors strewn about the stage is carrying the important narrative at the time.

      What is clearly evident is the show’s heartfelt tribute to friendship and love, demonstrated by the cast members’ affectionate energy toward one another and their moving rendition of “Seasons of Love”. While URP’s production doesn’t quite hit it, it’s nice to see a new generation of performers keeping the spirit of Rent alive.