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.
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.