‘Rent’ imitates rock, not life

The East Village is alive with the sound of rock.

The Yale Dramat’s mainstage production of “Rent” rattles you like a stadium rock concert. The lights, the spectacle, the electrifying music culminates in a theatrical production. But the performance lacks a certain human touch, making it feel too much like art and not enough like life.

Rent, the Dramat's Fall Mainstage Production, is being directed by Mike Donahue, a freelance director from New York City. The play will be running at the University Theater from November 10-13.
Rent, the Dramat's Fall Mainstage Production, is being directed by Mike Donahue, a freelance director from New York City. The play will be running at the University Theater from November 10-13.

Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” first produced in 1994, celebrated the New York bohemian life in all its grittiness. Some label it as a rock opera based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, but that would be an oversimplification. “Rent” transcends rock music to zoom in on the universal joys and sufferings of seven friends. The Yale casts’ beautiful rendition of “Seasons of Love” attested to this aim when they sang, “Let’s celebrate / Remember a year in the life of friends.” But although this production did its best to fulfill its goal, it unfortunately fell short.

The leads Miles Jacoby ’11, who plays Roger, and Devon Martinez ’11, who plays Mimi, put much effort into their performances, but were ultimately missing the chemistry to make their romance convincing. Jacoby portrayed Roger as introspective rocker, something along the lines of Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Unfortunately, he lacked energy throughout the show and his body movements remained quite static. In contrast, Martinez brought Mimi to life with her vigor and athleticism. Who else can do a split on stage wearing four-inch heels? But at times, Martinez moves and sounds like a ’90s pop star.

Angel (Sam Tsui ’11) and Collins (Scott Hillier ’11) were the couple who stole the show. Tsui danced and sang fabulously in a pink wing and a tutu. Viewers will be delighted to hear his pitch-perfect vocals in “Today 4 U,” when he rejoices in killing Benny’s (Matthew McCollum ’11) dog. While Tsui stayed true to Angel as depicted in the Broadway version, Hillier successfully inhabited the Collins of director Mike Donahue’s DRA ’08 creation. Though he seems perpetually stoned, Hillier exhibited an emotional depth conveyed through his rich baritone. In “I’ll Cover You,” he lamented Angel’s death with so much stoicism that it moved some in the audience to tears.

Of the supporting characters, Sarah Rosen ’12 as Maureen was the strongest — and the funniest. In the protest scene, Rosen’s over-the-top antics brought the house to roaring laughter. Part of that comes from her self-confidence, even when she is wearing nothing but a shirt and underwear. We never know what to expect from Rosen, whether she will belt out a “moo” or stick her chest in an audience member’s face.

While the actors’ overall performance was strong, this production made some unsatisfying artistic choices. The most noticeable was that all the actors used handheld microphones. The conspicuous microphones made the musical look more like a rock concert, and it proved too distracting in several scenes. For instance, when Jacoby tried to sing to his dying girlfriend, other characters set up microphones for him and his guitar. The clumsiness of the act destroyed half of the spontaneity and emotions in the scene. It forced us to drop our suspension of disbelief and realize we are watching an actor performing for us, instead of a character singing to another one.

But director Mike Donahue also made more successful choices, especially allowing the actors to openly interact with the audience. When Rosen urged everyone to “moo” along with her, she and a trio of ensemble actors rallied the whole audience. “Moo’s” and laughter filled the University Theatre from floor to rafters. Another memorable moment in the production was when actors released condom balloons into the audience during “Contact,” a song about sex, adding to the spontaneity of the show.

The production’s lighting and set appeared both coherent and professional. The whole stage resembled that of a rock concert, including a raised platform for the band and blinding floodlights overhead. While the design was clever and innovative, it often felt like an artifice. You need a dedicated imagination to believe that the characters are prancing through the East Village.

For its theatrical value, the Yale Dramat’s production of “Rent” rivals that of any rock concert. It has a voice — now it needs a heart.


  • kate21

    Not only is the Dramat’s production of Rent beaming with spirit and heart, but you’ve also completely missed the point. It IS a rock concert that includes and inspires its audience with its loud in-your-face attitude.
    and Miles Jacoby has no energy… are you high? He and everyone else was/is FANTASTIC!

  • Brendan

    So some of the design felt like artifice…that’s pretty hard to escape in a theatrical production; “suspension of disbelief” is not expected when it comes to the appearance of the stage but what’s important is that we believe the emotions being directly conveyed to us, and here I think the show succeeds far more than you give it credit for. I just watched some clips of the movie and they’re horrendous; everything is so polished and Disneyfied I can’t sit through it. But seriously, Miles and Devon were riveting; jaws dropped and eyes widened all around the theater during their finale. The guy who played Mark was awesome too. The music was phenomenal, and the show overall had more heart than anything I’ve seen in recent memory.

  • River Tam

    > He and everyone else was/is FANTASTIC!

    What a critical review.

  • TheatreLover69

    Let Miles take some criticism, guys. The show was definitely entertaining, but the reviewer does not need to gloss over all of its flaws. If only Raphael Shapiro auditioned for Roger…

  • JustinTimberlake

    This article missed the point to an embarrassing degree. The hand held mics and rockshow aesthetic certainly make the audience aware that the show is present and performed, but just because the show embraces its theatricality, it doesn’t mean it loses its heart. On the contrary, a production of RENT that aims for realistic portrayals could never be totally convincing because the show is not based in realism. That would seem forced and awkward, LIKE THE MOVIE. Maybe this is absurd, but a sold out house laughing hysterically, clapping and cheering for the actors, crying together at Angel’s death, and MOOing with Maureen does not feel like the show has no heart. They feel like they are A PART OF IT. And every single performance is INCREDIBLE. From Miles original portrayal of Roger to Scott’s easy going, open hearted Collins (and if he looks perpetually stoned, than everyone needs to get high more often, because I wish people were like that). The singing, acting, energy, and design of this show were OUTSTANDING and the audience’s confident and rare standing ovation was a reflection of that. This article made me really angry. This show is way better than 99 percent of the shows at Yale. Just saying….YDN needs to step it up.

  • Notareviewer

    I’ve been there, and if you’re going to the show, here’s a warning: reading the review may leave you unprepared for the wrenching emotional intensity of this show. The music’s great, the comedy’s hilarious, but make no mistake, this production is about life and death among a group of talented young people. If you’re a person like that, or you know people like that, this play and these actors and musicians will find you. (As the show itself explains, keeping a critic’s distance is a good way to hide, but probably not the best way to live.)

  • 1opinion

    Baobao of course is entitled to her reactions. Here are mine. First of all: how could an effective version of Rent NOT be self-consciously theatrical? Questions like “is it life?/is it art?/is there a difference?” are at the very core of the show and are presented by the libretto and music in layer upon layer. Performance art, documentary film-making, strip club dancing, and cross-dressing – all play with the art/life interface. Repeated references to La Boheme, Rent’s end-of-a-different-century operatic predecessor, won’t let us forget that we are an audience in a theater, even if we wanted to – and remind us that we’re watching the creation of something new, not just a repetition of an earlier work (or, for that matter, of an earlier production – check out Mike Donahue’s comments). Of course any opera, including sung-through rock opera like Rent, requires the willing suspension of disbelief. “Artifice” “requiring a dedicated imagination”? Yeah!
    (The execrable movie of Rent fails at least in part because it attempts to inject more “reality” into the show.)
    Now, about the performances: absolutely amazing! Moving. Emotional. Funny. Smart. Engaging. Roger “lacking energy” and “static”? Mimi “like a 90s pop star”? Collins’s lament “stoic”? I must have seen a different show. Roger was intense, understated (not an easy feat, and very powerful); Mimi was beautiful, sexy, fragile, sweet; their chemistry was hot. Collins’ incredibly emotional eulogy had many of the audience (and cast members) in tears. This is a show with TREMENDOUS heart!!! Mike and cast, congratulations! and keep doin’ what you’re doin’! if you’re without tickets, only two more chances to see it – get in line early! This is a production not to be missed.

  • Inigo_Montoya

    Poor, poor Baobao Zhang. Someone should have told her not to profane two cults’ sacred altars at once.

  • Standards

    No, I think someone should have told her to do an actual review that didn’t entirely miss the point for the biggest show that’s produced all year, especially considering this seems like Weekend’s continued attempt to have a dissenting opinion rather than a thoughtful one.

  • concernedcitizen

    as a frequent theater goer, i have to say, i agree with most of this review. i had a great time at the show because i love the music, but turning the show into a rock show did the story a disservice. when i’m so distracted by the lights that i don’t hear Mark quit his job during ‘what you own’, it’s a huge problem.
    as for individual performances, i fully acknowledge the fact that it’s different every night. when i saw it, i experienced the same thing the reviewer saw – collins and angel were the heart of the show (i wept like a baby during the reprise of I’ll Cover You), and roger was posing as opposed to having any genuine experience. and to be frank, having seen miles in several shows, i’ve never heard his voice sound weaker.
    i had fun, but i thought it was an average production that, at times, failed to tell the story.

  • Leah

    I like the show, but I did find the mikes and the repeated scrambles to get stands into place for Miles to be really distracting. The person I attended with was unaware that Angel had died until the “I’ll Cover You” song began because all the on-stage business during the song where he dies distracted from Collins and Angel (who were otherwise excellent).

    I think the review was wrong to say that the show lacked energy, but the energy was more directed to despair than in other productions I’ve seen. The characters seemed more exhausted and exasperated than passionately angry during a number of the fights. Some characters (Mimi and Mark) seemed cheerier and more wholesome than was appropriate.

  • BadBandana

    A lot of people in line for the bathrooms at intermission were flat-out glowing with delight. So first off, big props to all concerned (especially director Donahue) for making it so much FUN!!! I’m imagining Larson would be thrilled. There’s much lip service paid these days to the desirability of bringing the audience right up into the playing of the piece, but it’s hard to remember a show that pulled off that embrace with more power. We’ve already mooed our brains out for Maureen — Sarah Rosen having blown the doors off the joint in Over the Moon. Now we’re batting inflated condoms around the room while the cast gets off alone/together at their mic stands and Sam Tsui is mounting the bandstand one last time to blaze Angel feverishly off into the beyond. Barely five minutes has passed before Scott Hillier’s eulogy to this loss has filled the room with tears. Talk about being toyed with by masters. Sam Bolen made every single thing look easy. His tango with Derven was hilarious. Matt McCollum was all over Benny’s heart, and Jacoby and Martinez were wonderful together, hot and vulnerable, their singing simply exquisite. Her Splits from Pink Stilts… ? Please… This show was the stuff of magic.