By Nathan Angelo Cruz | Web Manager
Vol. XCI No. 18
Mar. 6, 2020
Through the years, Jonathan Larson’s hit Broadway musical, “Rent,” has proven itself to be no ordinary play. It is no less than a cultural phenomenon that has taken the world by storm since its premiere more than two decades ago. Its legacy, as well as the one of its late creator, will live on.
The world has seen many iterations of the show. Since its Broadway premiere in 1996, it has seen a run in West End, alongside tours in North America and the United Kingdom. A movie adaptation, featuring some of the original cast members, was released in 2005. Three years later, the final Broadway performance was filmed and released as “Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway.” Just last 2019, Fox broadcasted a partially live staging of Rent as a television special.
With the wide variety of shows that grace the Luce Auditorium year after year, it’s certainly not often that it sees the staging of such a revered Broadway musical. Directed by Miren Fernando and produced by the local Summit Theatre Productions, it undoubtedly has a lot to live up to.
Seasons of Love
While Rent’s predominantly rock soundtrack is something straight out of the nineties, its story is timeless; the themes it tackles are still relevant to this very day, despite still being the very same issues two decades ago—sexually transmitted diseases, LGBTQ+, and starving artists, to name a few. Through its plot and characterizations, Rent has a lot to say and ponder upon.
It’s essentially a story about a group of bohemians (i.e., unconventional, artistic people) in New York City trying to make their way in life and love. It began on Christmas Eve—December 24th, 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time—where two of the main characters, filmmaker Mark Cohen (Stephen Ramirez) and musician Roger Davis (Eli Razo), struggle to keep themselves warm. The two roommates learn that they are now due the rent of the past year from their former roommate and current landlord, Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III (Jed Alerta).
As the show unfolds, the stories of the show’s colorful cast of characters begin to intertwine. We meet Mimi Marquez (E.G. Arganza), an exotic dancer and heroin junkie who lives downstairs from Mark and Roger. We meet Maureen Johnson (Jessa Cabading), a performance artist and Mark’s ex-girlfriend, as well as her current significant other, the lawyer Joanne Jefferson (Ima Castro). We meet Tom Collins (Earnest Tinambacan), an anarchistic philosophy professor, and Angel Dumott Schunard (Gino Ramirez), a drag queen who saved him after he was beaten up on Christmas Eve.
At heart, these characters are all deeply flawed in their way; they are not moral paragons with a heart of gold. For one, Angel, who is usually seen as the kindest person in the group, killed Benny’s dog for money upon being introduced.
This, however, is no detriment to the play. Their fallibility as a character made them seem more like relatable people, even if their personalities may be a bit exaggerated. It makes them compelling; there’s no fun in seeing a character perfect in every way beyond the novelty. Hence, it’s not hard to find a favorite character to empathize with. They were all treated with enough respect and focus through their personal developments over the story. In the end, they became quite different from when they started; they’ve resolved to be more, and that’s what makes them each interesting. That said, while they are at least interesting enough on their own, there is much joy to be had seeing the characters together as an ensemble.
Throughout the show, we see the characters interacting in ways that, for a musical, are largely organic. Just about each musical number that isn’t a solo develops their relationships with each other without feeling too contrived. By the end of the first act, it is evident just how tightly-knit the main characters are with each other. This becomes arguably one of the musical’s greatest strengths—the bonds the characters share.
And the effect of this character development is monumental for the show in landing the emotional gut-punch that is the second act.
The group the audience has come to fall in love with during the first hour or so of the show is slowly being torn apart. Mark “sells his soul” and gets a job at a news company. Roger and Mimi have a falling out, because of the latter’s drug addiction and the former’s jealousy towards Benny. Maureen’s flirtatious tendencies lead to her and Joanne leaving each other after an ultimatum. Finally, Angel dies of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), leaving Collins, who also has it, behind. Though it’s been foreshadowed, what with the characters themselves having mentioned the illness beforehand, Angel’s sudden death still hits hard as it does.
Though the group goes their separate ways after this tragedy, they eventually reconvene and reconcile once Mimi falls ill too. Almost miraculously, she is seemingly revived by the voice of Angel, telling her to stay with Roger.
This ending, though slightly cheesy ties up the theme of friendship very well—that after all, they’ve been through, they all remained the closest of friends. Even through death, through poverty, through distance, through illness, their friendship has flourished.
They’ve lived a year in a life measured not in minutes, but love. That’s the true beauty of Rent.
Although the show was packed with dense and mature themes, it managed to be exhilaratingly enjoyable. This much was evident in both the cast and the audience. Just about every member on stage loved what they were doing, and it was palpable in the way they performed.
Of course, it’s not hard to feel this way when listening or belting some of the most popular songs in Broadway history—a key reason for Rent’s popularity. “Seasons of Love,” the first song of the second act, has transcended the bounds of theater to become an iconic song within pop culture. The song that bookended the first act, “La Vie Boheme,” is a high-octane celebration of the unconventional pleasures in life. And when Collins began to sing in “I’ll Cover You (reprise)” after Angel’s death, emotions ran high.
These songs are done justice, as the main cast is comprised of total powerhouses of theater that draw you in almost immediately. Of particular note is Castro’s take on Joanne, whose incredible charisma was more than a fit for the character as she continually stole the stage whenever she had the opportunity to though not to the point of completely overshadowing the others as in her duet with Stephen Ramirez in “Tango: Maureen.” That’s not to discount the others, too; Stephen Ramirez as Mark is highly reminiscent of Anthony Rapp’s, the original actor on Broadway, the portrayal of the character, and Gino Ramirez injects so much energy and enthusiasm into Angel.
Halfway through the show, the power went out for more than a handful of minutes. The bewildered audience froze as the actors continued performing “Christmas Bells.” There was a tense silence, with lingering doubts settling in. Until thankfully, the power went on. Cheers were heard throughout the auditorium as the song was repeated. “Honest living, honest living,” went the window washer for the second time, eliciting hearty laughter. And Gino Ramirez as Angel, clad in fabulous drag, winked at the audience in glee. The show went on wonderfully afterward, without a hitch.
It’s in moments like this that proves that the show is just plain fun. It’s fun listening to the actors belting their hearts out to catchy tunes with esoteric yet thought-provoking lyrics. It’s fun seeing the dancers that would accompany certain scenes. It’s fun seeing the set, props, and lighting be used in creative and exciting ways. It’s fun watching this group of “slackers” (as Benny in the show puts it) fight the system in the name of the people they love.
Watching this show gives an unmatched feeling—like floating on air in ecstasy, and you can’t be pulled down.
I Dreamed A Dream
Perhaps this particular staging of Rent’s greatest tragedy is not in its plot and characters, but in how it only ran for one night—7 p.m. of Feb. 22. As of press time, no other plans have been announced on Summit Theatre Production’s Facebook page.
The two other times it would have run was canceled due to concerns regarding the Coronavirus. While the move was understandable in the interest of public safety, it was unfortunate that of the 525,600 minutes in the year, the people of Dumaguete could only watch it for a little over 120 minutes total.
That’s because it’s no small feat pulling off a grand production of a Broadway musical with a star-studded cast and highly competent crew. But Rent has been Director Fernando’s dream for the longest time, and it shows in just how much love and care was put into this production.
Truly, Summit Theatre Production’s adaptation of Rent to the Sillimanian stage is more than just a cookie-cutter second-rate imitation of a world-renowned musical. It’s a dream made manifest by the passion of its cast and crew, and the experience was worth far beyond its ticket price.
Photo courtesy of Francis Ryan Pabiania