Saturday, March 3, 2012

Review: (Ottawa) Rent

La Vie Bohème
Rent rises in the Capital
by Jim Murchison
I probably knew less about Rent than most of the audience last night. Oh sure I knew it was set in New York, based on the Pucinni opera La Bohème, so I knew it was about Bohemians and someone would die. You can’t have an opera without at least one great death scene. Among the dedicated “Rent Heads” however, I may have been the only person in the packed house that hadn’t even seen the movie. 
So, last night I finally crawled out from under my rock and joined the faithful for Orpheus’ production of Rent at the Centrepointe Theatre. The passion that the audience has for this play is as exciting as the play itself and it certainly was in the house full force last night. The incredibly talented ensemble gave back to the audience and earned every cheer, laugh and ovation they received. 

...what Rent truly speaks to is family, love and community.
Like any good Opera, be it rock opera or soap opera; the romances are critical to the development and success of the story. Writer Jonathon Larson reframed for the contemporary audience three grand tales of love that run simultaneously. The play explores life and death as well as money, art, AIDS and addiction; but what Rent truly speaks to is family, love and community. 
Mark Cohen is the videographer who acts as the narrator for the story, played with honesty by Brennan Richardson. For much of the play his character has a certain professional detachment from his roommates, acting strictly as a correspondent. His relationship with the other tenants is equally important though and he deftly steps between his two roles.
Benny is a wheeling dealing landlord who casts almost as large a shadow over their existence as the AIDS epidemic that threatens their lives. Benny used to be a part of this group of artists and misfits but sold out. Stefan Keyes plays him with an understated slyness that makes even his seeming acts of benevolence suspect. 
Tom Collins is a computer wizard who falls in love with a cross dressing musician appropriately named Angel. Both live with AIDS.  Maxim David allows Collins's love to grow naturally throughout the play. He very believably takes the relationship from sexual curiosity to an intimate and enviable relationship. Jeremy Sanders plays Angel Dumont Shunard with an honest sense of humour that never lampoons his drag queen persona or goes for the cheap laugh. By not resorting to caricature, he allows us to know Angel’s gentle spirit and be moved by his agony. 

Perhaps the best performance of all is between Maureen Johnson and Joanne Jefferson.
Roger Davis, Derek (D.J.) Eyamie is a musician who wants to write a great song before he dies and Mimi Marquez, Andrea Black is an exotic dancer who just wants love. Both are HIV positive. They play with passion. Their duets, Light my Candle and Without You are highlights of the show. They have one recurring lyric that is a theme for their relationship, “I should tell you”. Their performance dramatically follows that line. They argue, are jealous and afraid but finally through honesty, their love grows stronger. 
Perhaps the best performance of all is between Maureen Johnson and Joanne Jefferson. Joanne is a lawyer played powerfully by Rebecca Abbott . She has a brilliant, soulful voice that exposes the heart of her no nonsense lawyer’s character. Her solo’s are beautiful and her gospel lines cut through the ensembles’ gorgeous choral work as if heaven sent. Maureen is much spoken of before we meet her. Her anticipated entrance is a comic tour de force as performed by Devon O’Reilly. Maureen is a little fickle and flaky and O’Reilly is truly masterful in her use of timing and vocal mannerisms that expose her character’s quirkiness, without losing any of the musicality. 
Artistic director Nicole Milne has been given a very talented cast and she takes full advantage, making all the right choices. The design elements from Jennifer Donnelly’s appropriately squalid, yet beautiful set, Tiara Wallace’s funky costumes and David Magladry’s solid lighting, complete the artistic vision.
Musical Director James Caswell and his orchestra reside in a lower apartment onstage and provide the instrumental support (instrumental in both senses of the word) for the voices on stage. 
It is a remarkable testament to the depth of talent in Ottawa that a show of this magnitude can be mounted and performed at this level by people who have “day jobs”. You have to read the biographies to know that this was not a full “Equity” production. The level of commitment and the power of the performance are the same as if it were a full time job. The question was put forth in The Charlebois Post, should we review non-Equity productions. Orpheus gives us the one word answer: absolutely! 

Rent continues to March 11

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