Theater Guild’s ‘Rent’ amazes

By Matthew M. Robare

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The University of Massachusetts Theater Guild’s production of “Rent” was amazing, apart from the lack of respect for the performers from the audience. By the time the ensemble had finished Act I of “Rent” with a rendition of “La vie Boheme,” I was ready to leap out of my seat and strangle several of the people sitting near me.

I want to make one thing crystal clear: if you are attending a performance of any sort – a play, a concert, an avant-garde protest, the ballet – turn your cell phone off. Don’t put it on silent, turn it off. It’s not like you can’t text your lack of interest or total disrespect for your native language the other 21 hours of the day you’re not in a theater where the majority of people actually want to see the play. Since I cannot get away with bodily harm I must console myself with the fact that there are special torments reserved in hell for disrupters. Again, turn your cell phones off.

“Rent” is a musical about a group of young people living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Many of them are suffering from HIV/AIDS. It has a quite complicated plot, because it follows several characters with equal importance, but I see the major plot lines being the relationships between Collins (Michael McSweeney) and Angel (Darvin Hernandez) and Mimi (Julia Piker) and Roger (Ben Sharton).

McSweeney and Hernandez were more than up to the task of portraying perhaps the greatest tragic love story since Rick and Ilsa in “Casablanca.” I actually can’t even think about Angel without getting misty-eyed and by the time of “I’ll Cover You: Reprise” and “Halloween,” when we learn Angel’s future, the entire audience was crying.

Sharton, I believe, succeeded in his goal of making Roger more sympathetic and Piker did an excellent job as Mimi – although at times, especially in “Out Tonight,” her high notes were getting away from her. I also found that there wasn’t as much chemistry between them, although this could be explained by the characters being fairly lonesome people throughout most of the story. When the play opens, for instance, Roger apparently hasn’t left the apartment he shares with Mark (Matt Magarth) for several months.

Magarth began a little shaky, looking at the audience before delivering his lines and his microphone cut out halfway through the song “Rent,” meaning that the music occasionally drowned his voice out. However, he owned “La vie Boheme.” Lisa Bettancourt, as Maureen, managed to capture Maureen’s out-there-ness, which was certainly helped by the cow-themed protest piece “Over the Moon,” although I couldn’t help but think about the Saturday Night Live “More Cowbell” sketch.

The best performances of the evening, however, went to Ilana Ransom Toeplitz as Joanne. She captured the character perfectly. Also for best performance is Ronald Vorce and Lauren Mack, the soloists for “Seasons of Love.” The song was beautifully performed by the entire company, but Vorce and Mack stole the show.

The best thing about “Rent” is that it manages to portray everything very realistically. Yes, it is one of the saddest plays ever, but there are still humorous moments. Angel’s solo “Today 4 U” involves him dispatching an annoying dog, Garfield-style. Collins is an anarchist computer scientist philosopher who wants to open a restaurant in New Mexico in “Santa Fe.”

Opening night was problematic because of several technical glitches – microphones cut out frequently and the band could be overenthusiastic at times and drown out the performers, even when the microphones were working properly.

Despite technicalities, “Rent” surely could have sent any audience member “Over the Moon” for the worthwhile performance.

Matthew M. Robare can be reached at [email protected]