Erin Roche is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago with a degree in Vocal Performance, a strong theater background, and an even stronger desire to showcase the best that Chicago talent has to offer.
Photo: Will Wilhelm as Angel
Review: RENT at Metropolis
By Erin Roche
“Honest living! Honest living!” an ensemble member cries out, miming a window washer in this setting of grimy, mid-AIDS epidemic New York City. I don’t think I’ve ever really noticed this moment in RENT before. But isn’t that what RENT is? Honest. Living.
The hush and taboo surrounding AIDS took away the voice of those suffering with this death sentence in the 1980s, and RENT helped give their voices back with a vigor. Composer Jonathan Larson’s rock opera holds up a mirror to the audience and dares them to feel their version of isolation and the community that saves them from it. Your experience with isolation might not be the same—it might not stem from terminal illness, addiction, struggles of artistic identity, or personal identity, of rocky relationships. But you empathize in a way that is real to you. And that is the beauty of this piece of theater. You witness a year in these characters’ lives and walk with them, internalizing the importance of genuinely living each day for the moments you have. To live honestly, because there isn’t any time to do otherwise.
Jonathan Larson died twenty years ago on the opening day of RENT’s premiere Off-Broadway, no doubt bringing the already steeped emotions in this musical masterpiece to stratospheric heights. But he lives on in every turn of Mark’s camera reel, in every “moo” of Maureen’s performance, in every candle blown out. It sent shivers through me to think of what it must have felt like on that night, and our hearts have been catching in our throats with every production of RENT since.
I wanted to love this production. And in some moments, I did. I had goosebumps in Paul Michael Thomson’s moment in the life support scene, smiles with Mallory Maedke’s spine-tingling solo in Seasons of Love, tears during the I’ll Cover You Reprise and the addition of Angel’s literal ascension into heaven. I loved the chemistry between Joanne and Maureen; it was tangible and dynamic. Costumes were spot on (Cathy Tantillo), and the band, led by expert pianist Alex Newkirk, was tight. But the lead cast overall? Flat and under-developed, at best.
Each actor had glimpses of something better brewing– and for that reason, I think it’s worth seeing how their vocal grasp of the score and their characters develop over the course of this run. After all, the RENT I love comes through in soulful Jordan Harris as Collins, and in Abby Vombrack as laugh-out-loud-hilarious Maureen, somehow balancing that controlled hysteria with real acting chops. Will Wilhelm did Angel proud, pulling off the sense that she could have pas-de-bourree’d right out of Roscoe’s at 3 AM with grace, gusto, and 6-inch heels. And everyone turned it out for the funeral scene. I heard many a sniffle in the audience and I felt like the people on stage were really friends with the metaphoric Angel of Avenue B.
Larson said it best, and Metropolis was apt to quote in their production notes, “In these dangerous times, where it seems the world is ripping apart at the seams, we can all learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face every day and [we] should reach out to each other and bond as a community, rather than hide from the terrors of life.” The score, the story, the show that changed the face of musical theater– these are the reasons to see any production of RENT. So, if you can get past a Mimi strangely reminiscent of the last girl at a late night karaoke bar (but maybe that’s how Mimi should be?), raise your glass (since you can bring your drinks into the theater– bless you, Metropolis) to La Vie Boheme.