By Josie Shaw, Managing editor of production
Inside UM’s Sue Meadows Black Box theater, seats are crammed together as the room is packed to the brim with dark corridors, busy alleyways, abandoned apartments and a general New York City underbelly attitude.
This playground of a set wonderfully serves the cast members as they sprawl from every which way bursting into vibrato and bustling vocal runs without a moment’s notice.
The sky beams heavenly light onto the stage as stellar performers passionately spew spit on the discombobulated audience during a 2-and-a-half-hour joyride of love, death and AIDS.
“Rent” is disgusting. Like, it smells bad. And that is what I love about it.
It’s too bad there is a pungent mist of pretentiousness clouding any insight onto otherwise profound topics.
Make no mistake, the students involved with this production have done an incredible job. There are so many ambitious ideas that are a success in this show.
For starters, the set is incredible. It is genuinely mind-blowing that students decorated, painted and constructed a miniature Alphabet City.
The band for the music did an absolutely great job guiding musical numbers, “I’ll Cover You” and “Out Tonight” being my favorites.
The choreography and stage direction were stellar. The explosion of movement in the title number, “Rent,” impressed me.
And most of all, the actors are the selling point of UM’s production. All of the leads in this show are extremely dedicated to selling their character’s emotions to the audience.
It is obvious to me that Ara Besque Starr, portraying Angel, is the true star of this production. Angel is the most multidimensional character in this story, and Starr gives an unforgettable performance as delivers on each emotional nuance.
Jordan Hall, portraying Tom, and Jaanai de la Torre-Martinez, portraying Mimi, were also huge highlights, both as actors and singers.
I don’t mind sitting in the splash zone if it results in experiencing such incredible performances.
For such a diamond of a production, unfortunately, the show’s book leaves “Rent” with nothing more than several beautiful tableaus of resentment, grief and smugness. I left with more spit on my face than tears.
To be utterly fair, Johnathan Larson, the show’s creator, had a clearer purpose in creating and producing “Rent” in the early 1990s than in 2023.
Harmful rhetoric and stereotypes about people who are HIV positive was, and still are, rampant today. The erasure and death of people, particularly queer people, during the AIDS epidemic is a truly horrible thing that I cannot fully feel the effect of.
But, that’s my issue. I cannot feel the effect of this era, or this show.
For such a queer and sex positive show, “Rent” was so deserving to be proud of its enforcement of positive and loving queer stereotypes in the 1990s. And well, it’s still deserving today. Certain moments ring even stronger during a time of massive legislative attack towards queer people.
But now we are blessed with the privileged mentality of retrospect, and I don’t feel this show’s attitude translates appropriately in 2023.
For such an intimate performance in a smaller sized theater, the show’s pridefulness dropped a thick veil between the stage and the audience. That’s because “Rent” demands the audience to empathize with these characters, but never respects you enough to earn it.
For a show so adamant on using poverty as a major theme, many of the leads are not homeless or forcefully impoverished. They choose not to work day jobs out of resentment for their “sellout” ex-artist landlord friend.
Neither the characters nor Larson ever question why poverty exists or fight against larger oppressors in the manor of advocacy. Instead, they use homelessness as a platform to express their own art in hopes of becoming a thriving artist themselves.
This makes poverty no longer a theme, but an aesthetic, and an abuse of an aesthetic at that.
While this sounds like the greatest satire about gentrification ever written, there are no indicators motioning this story towards dramatic irony. Rarely are the characters ever criticized within the show, and when they are, nothing ever changes
The show put its characters through limited cycles of emotions including: being angry and smug at the world, lovingly holding hands as the characters’ hearts are healed with melodramatic pride, courageously fist pumping the air and, finally, a somber demeanor of grief and sorrow. Cycle repeats.
It’s like a surreal episode of “Friends”, but the punch line is about death.
The treatment of the women and gender non-conforming leads of this show is upsetting. The characters that fall in these categories get the shortest end of the stick in terms of hardship to an extreme, which comes across as a slap in the face as a queer woman myself.
Also, the assumably straight male character having an ex-girlfriend-turned-lesbian stereotype within the show being based upon Larson’s life is hilariously pathetic. The writing of Maureen’s character reeks of biphobia, as she is portrayed as a self-centered cheater.
Isn’t Larson contributing to the fundamental flaw that his characters exude? None of this information previously mentioned is appropriate representation and allyship, but is abuse of the hurting people once around him. Nice going, Mark.
There is also something to be said about the music of this show. I love the pacing of the songs. The chaotic switches of genre and attitude between characters within one song is an accomplishment.
But what I don’t enjoy is the melancholic but boastfully smug balladry of numerous numbers. I’m glad these moments uplifted communities during a time of much needed support, but, in 2023, these moments reach nothing but a feeling of performative advocacy.
“Seasons of Love”, while a fan favorite, is sweet and nostalgic to a sickening degree. I think it is cruel that this hokey Paul McCartney-esque motif bookends the most emotional moment of the show.
Shoutout to Hall’s stellar performance for reversing my eye roll into a jaw drop.
Oh, and the ending of the show? You’ve got to be kidding me.
I attribute my emotional disconnection of “Rent” to the show’s book, but also to the lack of tasteful adaptation and direction in this production.
I encourage homage to the 1990s AIDS epidemic, but the purpose of this show was never homage, it was empowerment contextual to its time. Without much intent towards doing either, the content of this show leaves me with a major question: what was the point of this production?
I’ve had enough hand holding and fist pumping for a while.
Despite my feelings about the show itself, the amount of talent showcased during the 2022-2023 UM Theatre Department run of shows prove the students worthy of praise.
I am so happy UM blessed this department with a brand-new sandbox and playground with the Center for the Arts.
My experience watching this show was a battle between immersing myself into the emotions that Larson and the director of UM’s production attempt to sell to the audience, or solely appreciating the production students have put into this spectacle.
If you do end up buying in, the veil is lifted, and it’s the best episode of Glee you will ever see. And hell, I love Glee.