‘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.

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