Monday, March 01, 2010

Dying bohemians in the throes of song

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 03.01.2010

9 Works Theatrical’s “Rent” was efficient, handsome-looking and shallow

SINCERE. SYNTHETIC. Can those contradictory impulses co-exist as two halves of one show?

It’s a thought worth pondering in the wake of 9 Works Theatrical’s just-ended production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” which ran at the RCBC Theater to often full houses this February.

This latest local incarnation of the Broadway behemoth, mounted 11 years after Monique Wilson’s New Voice Company first staged it in Manila under Bobby Garcia’s direction, rounded up a fresh, mostly young cast to belt out “Rent’s” by-now mainstream score to a new generation of theatergoers, many of whom were seeing the show live for the first time (a movie version, starring most of the original Broadway cast, came out in 2005).

What they saw was a good enough introduction to the material--if that meant the show wrapping itself up with no embarrassing moments and the actors going through their paces and scaling those punishing notes adequately, sometimes thrillingly.

Perhaps too familiar now to rouse any genuine edge or emotion, this “Rent”--directed by Robbie Guevara, with scenery by Mio Infante--was efficient, handsome-looking and shallow.

In this it found common ground with the long-running Broadway production—or at least the final performance captured on DVD last year, which saw a powerhouse cast barrel through the material with a bland slickness worlds away from the raw, pulsating beginnings of Larson’s musical.

Lacking desperation
Specifically, the cast of this “Rent,” appealing though they were in their earnest, complete embrace of their roles, seemed unable to suggest any tinge of despair--the indispensable yang to the show’s yin, its beatific “no day but today” spirit.

Without that haunting undertow of darkness and desperation, “Rent’s” famous mantra rings hollow. Without the clarifying crucible of anguish, the show becomes both overwrought and nonsensical, in a direct reflection of its operatic origins.

Consider: Its denizens, unlike us plain folks who have to live by the rules, refuse to pay rent, run up unpaid tabs at restaurants, rewire ATMs to steal cash for starving friends (though with the blithe caveat that “Robin Hooding is not the solution”), taunt anybody conventional as a sell-out. They bicker and whine, piss and moan over the smallest things. All that, and there’s a jarring resurrection near the end.

But we forgive and accept these strange goings-on, because the maddening artists and bohemians behind them are living on the edge, staring down the precipice of death and nothingness. Their anger, passion and confusion make for compelling airing. Dancing like Scheherazade to the point of extinction, their senses are sharper, their emotions fuller, their engorged visions allowing us to see life in a different, more overwhelming light.

Take away that edge, sandpaper it with likability and surface sheen, and you get a Roger like Gian Magdangal’s--great-looking in scruffy top, voice in precise (though hardly rocking) form, but never for a moment the demon-haunted band frontman and former junkie.

Or the 20-year-old Fredison Lo as Mark--obviously a talented young chap, but lacking for now the maturity to summon the struggling filmmaker’s distant, brittle interior.

There is no question, in fact, that the rest of the cast possessed strong musical gifts. (Nicole Asencio sang Mimi plausibly even with a striking alto, and Ring Antonio’s solo in “Seasons of Love” occasioned cheers.) These performers could ace the score in their sleep, and “Rent”’s eclectic music is nothing if not catnip for limber, adventurous voices.

Pain and deliverance
What one missed, crucially, was the sense that, for all their sincerity and directness, these performers understood--felt--that “Rent’s” ultimate life-affirming message only made sense when filtered through the melancholy at its core. That pain needed to suffuse the show to make possible any deliverance in the end.

Absent that pain and everything else would seem cursory, from the characters’ industrial-grade angst to the alien milieu--what the New York Times’ A.O. Scott described as the “instantly obsolete vision of the New York demimonde”--which didn’t come naturally to the performers, either.

There was, in short, energy but not much wisdom in the show. Perhaps dispensing soundbite inspiration comes easier to young people than plumbing the blues?

However, for a production about and pitched to the young, this “Rent” ironically found its greatest strength in veteran hands. When it came to the performances, experience trumped youth.

Carla Guevara-Laforteza was simply smashing as Maureen (her “Jump Over the Moon” monologue, with Warholian videographics augmenting the performance art--a deft touch by Guevara--reclaimed for a moment “Rent’s” avant-garde cred). Volatile, unpredictable, her appearance (not often enough, alas) jolted the show out of its safe exertions every time.

Noel Rayos as Benny, and Raul Montesa and Johann de la Fuente in various smaller roles, also lent the show much-needed solidity.

Among the newbies, OJ Mariano revealed himself as the most promising, with an easy self-assurance that belied his zero background in musical theater before this production. His “I’ll Cover You” lament in Act 2 was the show’s one genuinely moving moment. He and Job Bautista (as Angel) also had fine chemistry, creating a hip, warm partnership that was easy on the eyes and ears.

By the time Mariano came around to his aria, though, a full two hours of faultless but prosaic singing had come to pass. Too many notes, but not much soul.

Larson himself captured, in a line, the neurosis of a surface-skimming life: “I don’t own emotion, I rent.”

This “Rent,” for the most part, rented.


Richard said...

Gibbs, this review is nothing but sublime -- and in totality, nothing but true.

I certainly have to agree with everything and add that Cara Barreido's rendition of "Without Me" might have been just that --without her, the world revolves, colors renew, et cetera, et cetera. I don't hate the artist, but I think that her version didn't reach the depression and desperation that Mimi Marquez felt when she has found her true love and yet cannot break free of her drug-drowned life.

I will give the cast another try, though. My review of "Rent" is still in the works. I'll send a message when I publish it. :-)

BTW, did you see Rep's Romeo and Bernadette? I'll post a review about that soon, too. :-)

Joey said...

I agree with you on the lack of "pain" and "despair"...

haha.. I didn't realize that while I was writing my review.. Pero you're right.. Rent is supposed to show that despite pain and despair, we can be happy and feel loved... and I think it's just the "happy" part that was evident in the production..

Anonymous said...

Hindi maganda iyong staging. may kasama ako na nanood nito, she was really disappointed. Sayang.

Anonymous said...

it was a good attempt but lacking in depth ... most of the actors lacked the angst needed by the show ... i agree though that Carla Guevara was amazing in her performance ... OJ Mariano had the most intriguing singing voice of all ... Noel Rayos in his short appearances, was convincing enough ... the rest, from leads to chorus were just poor copycat versions ... all in all, it was entertaining but theater is not just meant to entertain ... it's meant to touch the heart or trigger an emotion or spark a conversation ... it should inspire ... this one did not, not at all.

Eevie said...

Hi Gibbs,

Can't say I don't agree with you. In fact I agree with you 100%. Was hoping to catch a better show towards the end of the run but I may have been wrong. I couldn't feel the characters and the journey they were taking - - and frankly, couldn't care less if they made it through. Mostly because, as you said, they didn't seem desperate enough and came off more to me as "pa-artist" rather than those really infused with passion. Ended up just mentally flipping through the scenes and somewhat politely waiting for the show to end. So i could eat.

That said, I did really appreciate Carla, Noel and Johann. Aside from what you said, it was very apparent to me that they understood their character and made their characters original and their own. For a renthead who has seen various stagings of the show, that made me feel as though I was re-discovering them. And that was very important to me. I loved how Benny was a jerk but a dork at the same time who really still cared about his friends. Carla showed me that with the character of Maureen, particularly in Over the Moon, you can really go all sorts of crazy and still surprise people without being a copycat (now that i think is the work of a true artist). Johann, even as just a minor character, I think played all his parts to a T -- him, I believed the most! Lastly, if you say this is OJ's first musical, props to him then. Not bad!

Anonymous said...

Naku, si gibbs na iyan ha, sobrang considerate magreview

Misterhubs said...

I agree. It was my first time to see Rent and the polished production failed to pluck any emotional strings in me. (But I must admit, Gian's bare arms made me want to jump out of my seat and bite them. Haha.)

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Gibbs. I was really disappointed with the show because of several things. I felt a lack of chemistry between Roger and Mark (The 2 Lead Guy), they didn't seem like roommates or friends at all. The guy that plays Mark spoke and sang well, but I couldn't help thinking he was a Disney character in terms of acting. The guy who plays Roger only looked good, but he didn't make me believe he was in real pain, or that he was a Rocker at all. He was more like a boy band member. If the two gave more to their roles I would have forgiven everything else because they are the very backbone of the show. If your leads fail to convey the truths of their characters, then they pull the entire show down. Their Mimi (Nicole) I felt was awesome for its the first time I encountered a Mimi who seems so fragile and weak as if she did have aids, was a stripper, and was a junkie. Its something new that I found awesome! Joanne was lackluster beside Maureen, but is not suppose to be the case with the material; they are both really strong characters that go head to head and that's what I love about "Take Me Or Leave Me". Collins is another who sang well but lacks truth in his acting. I was not moved by his "I'll cover you reprise" because he merely cried his eyes out as a way to express pain, but then Collins was ready for Angel's loss and would have handle it with a bit more resolve? so why was he crying like he didn't expect to lose Angel?

All in all, I would have asked for my money back if not for the likes of Maureen, Mimi, Angel and ensemble people like Johann dela fuente (He really got my attention when he played each of his several roles) who made me enjoy it in a way still.

Frankie said...

Nakulangan talaga ako kay Mimi, saw the show twice, both Mimis were sorta disappointing.
However, I did like Mark. I think it was a different take on the role. He made Mark more endearing. Or baka yung boyish look lang niya ang endearing. Hehe.
Gian Magdangal surprised me; on Opening Night, it didn't seem like his voice was cut out for the role, but he improved so much when I saw him again.

Anonymous said...

I agree 500 percent.

But comment lang, Gibbs, hindi masyadong reader friendly ang review mo. parang nagpapaka-elite slash-maraming-alam-na-deep-words ang article na to, na hindi naman masyadong necessary.

that's just me. I read reviews about broadway shows sa states and it is very direct and easy to understand.

Anonymous said...

Gibbs! AGREE.

Pero comment lang, Ive been reading reviews about shows sa US. and your article is not very reader friendly. medyo elite ang dating with all those big words.

that's just me :D and im sure maraming mag-aagree.

Jayson said...

thank you for this review! ang hirap lang intindihin. puwede namang mas simplified diba? hehehe :D mwa.

Anonymous said...

this is 9works 2nd production right? their first one was utterly disastrous - with one lead guy constantly singing off-key and another lead girl (the wife of the producer i heard?) who although in perfect pitch was extremely dense and lacking all the required emotions ... and then now, with RENT, although not as a disaster as the first one is still disappointing. I felt bad for the students who watched this for the first time - it was such a rip-off! The tickets are so expensive and yet they were able to disillusion these young people that what they were showing is actually good! Kudos tho to 9works for very good publicity but shame on you for very bad artistry.

gibbs cadiz said...

'shame on you' is too harsh, ANONYMOUS. and so is 'very bad artistry,' which is putting it a bit much, based on what i saw. artists try their best but fail sometimes. their honest effort needs to be appreciated, at the very least. cattiness is so much easier, and therefore cheaper.

Nar said...

Favorite ko si Johann as Paul! Fabulous!

Ching said...

I kind of liked it since it was my first time seeing it live. The cast was very good, but kulang lang ng Broadway-y touch. And the show itself is forgettable. :( I wish I could've seen the 90's prod here in the Philippines.

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