Sentimental is a term that is often used in a derogatory way in criticism. Strong emotions are juxtaposed with a more savvy and self-aware, or clear-headed and objective approach to human issues. ‘Sentimental’ is a label frequently applied to musicals, and this year’s Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society (AUTS) production, RENT is no exception. The musical is firmly rooted in the lifestyle of the bohemian New York City artists of the time, and thus tackles the effects of the AIDS epidemic, gentrification, and drug abuse. Despite these dark themes, the work is undeniably earnest: The ideal of the bohemian is romanticized, and the themes presented are to live life in the moment and not abandon your passions.
In a world where Alphabet City has been gentrified beyond recognition, the success of a show like RENT is thus grounded in the ability of the cast and director to make these themes seem real and relevant rather than trite and nostalgic. Daniel Austin-Boyd, the director of the show, did an excellent job by taking the source material in a more abstract direction. RENT is traditionally performed as a rock opera, with very few dance numbers. For RENT, Austin-Boyd chose instead to enlist the help of experienced choreographer Debbie Friedmann. He uses a variety of dance numbers until the end of the first act, accentuating the fantastic and optimistic elements of the source material. This stands in contrast to the more tragic second act, where dance takes a back seat. Beyond the musical numbers, the show is full of stylistic flair, using silhouette and tableau in ways that punctuate the show’s themes within the show.
Friedmann’s choreography is worth special mention. The show features a diverse array of dance styles, including waacking, contemporary, tango, burlesque, and street dance.
“Every movement is thought out both conceptually and in movement,” Friedmann explained. “When you put that much thought into the choreography, [the audience] gets the idea behind it.”
It takes a moment to adjust to the elaborate dance performances, which come close to overcrowding the stage at times, but it pays off in moments like “Contact,” a raw and sexual number that concludes with the entire ensemble forming a writhing mass in the middle of the stage. Waacking and other dances that originated in black queer subcultures are used in “Today 4 U” to great effect, bringing the fantastic camp of drag shows to light.
The protagonist, Angel (Jordan Pollock), is central to the work: Their death represents the cost borne by the queer community in New York during the AIDS epidemic. Pollack holds this role down well, performing in and out of drag, showcasing both his excellent voice and an appreciation for music. Collins, Angel’s partner who is portrayed by Zachary Sykes, has a fantastic bass voice which serves as a strong anchor throughout the show. The chemistry between the two actors is not particularly steamy, but they both do an excellent job portraying their roles. A chemistry which works very well is between Mark (Olivier Bishop-Mercier) and Roger (Jack Ball), who are friends outside of the production and have a natural ease and familiarity with each other on stage. Roger’s romance with Mimi (Theodora Metechiuk) exhibits clear sexuality. Her portrayal oozes sex appeal, though there could have been more done to emphasize the weakness and fear that Mimi feels.
An especially enjoyable performance comes through in Sophie Doyle’s Maureen, a character whose reputation is built up for a long time before she takes the stage. Doyle perfectly captures the complications in the figure of the bourgeoisie bohemian: She is so passionate in what she does that she lacks self-awareness. Her performance of “Over the Moon” is over-the-top and hilarious, serving as a hint at some of the hypocrisy in bohemian communities as she takes centre stage to speak for experiences she doesn’t really understand. Overall, the casting fits the characters, and the additional members of the ensemble bring comedy as well as terrific voices to the production.
It’s impossible to talk about RENT without mentioning the music, which is superb throughout. As in previous productions at Moyse Hall, there are some issues with the wireless microphones, but the issues are relatively unobtrusive. The voices were nicely balanced, and the live band is talented. The powerful, delicate harmonies create shiver-worthy musical moments. In the end, this music seems to be the answer to the question of sentimentality, the feelings that it produces, combined with the stylistic touches, and performances makes the performance feel true.
Austin-Boyd and the cast and crew do a good job of bringing out meaning and nuance in their production of RENT. By nodding at some of the fantastical elements of the bohemian lifestyle, they make the harsh realities of it seem current. That said, this is still a very fun and enjoyable show to watch, with lots of laughs. The range of the performance makes it definitively a worthwhile production to see.
RENT will be performed in Moyse Hall from Thursday Jan. 28 to Saturday Jan. 30 at 6:45 p.m. Visit www.autsmcgill.com for ticket information.