Theatre Review: My Love/Hate Relationship With ‘Rent’


Note: This review was posted on the KC Stage review system.

Rent, book, music, and lyrics written by Jonathan Larson; directed by Eric Magnus. Produced by The Barn Players (Kansas City). First produced 1996. (Seen November 21, 2010.)

I’m very bi-polar when it comes to the musical Rent. While I do like most of the music (especially “Life Support” and “Seasons of Love”), I despise the ongoing voice mail songs and “Christmas Bells” songs (one or two of these both would be okay — but it just gets old way too quick) and am not a fan of the fact that we don’t really get a full song through the whole show, instead getting snippets here and there.

And while I like the theme of ‘no day but today’ and ‘be true to your artist side’, I have a hard time with a ‘don’t be commercial’ theme when the Rent logo is plastered over everything, as well as have a hard time with ‘support people in difficult times’ when you have to be at least middle class to even think about seeing a professional version of this production. (And it doesn’t help that Team America: World Police did a great send-up of another inherent problem with the show of it coming across a bit too pretentious and, while I know AIDS is rampant, having the show feel at times like it’s “Everyone has AIDS! AIDS AIDS AIDS!”)

So, writing a review of The Barn Players’ production is difficult for me. Doubly difficult in writing this is that I had seen Rent when Broadway Across America toured it a couple of years ago, and in the discussion after with my husband, we talked about the inevitable fact of community theatre companies doing it, and we both agreed that The Barn Players would probably be the best bet for putting on a fairly decent show. Also, after that touring production, I realized I prefer the movie (primarily because they took out those voice mail songs and in my opinion made it more cohesive and universal a story through taking it beyond the stage).

On top of that, I didn’t get a chance to see it until closing night. A review should be a critical analysis of the show, but there’s nothing I can say now that will help the show. But an analysis can be more than a ‘go see this show’ or ‘don’t go see this show’. It can also discuss what worked and didn’t for me as an audience member.

For tech, it was an excellent use of the space for a set design, but there were periodic microphone issues that seemed to plague the production. The band was in a good spot and did a great job, although the use of canned music for Angel’s “Today 4 U” was a little too obvious as a result.

As for the acting, the energy was way down (which hopefully was just due to it being closing night — I know I wouldn’t want to go through this emotional roller coaster three times a week). This was most notable in the Act I finale “La Vie Bohème”, which should be a show-stopping number and never really got to that point. Some of that may be that the actors were too aware of the external audience on other songs (especially “Today 4 U” and one of Roger’s songs, which I can’t remember right now) instead of the ‘internal’ audience of the other cast members, and this was one of the few times they could’ve broken that rule. But since they had broken it for other songs, it just didn’t play.

Robert Hingula was the best out of the batch as Roger with a real powerhorse singing voice, while Eboni Fondren (as Joanne) and Linnaia McKenzie (as Mimi) were the weakest of the cast (although it was great to see so many faces I’d never seen before). Bryan LaFave had his moments as Angel, he never really brought Angel beyond ‘a drag queen’ to the core transgendered person of the group that is the best of them all. While I’m not sure how much of this was directorial and how much was actor choice, Justin Dehmer’s performance as Mark was ‘meh’ — Dehmer trying way too hard to be the Mark of the movie instead of bringing his own interpretation to the role. However, Mackenzie Zielke did a fairly good job on the near-impossible task of the role of “Maureen”, treading that difficult line of knowing everyone will be comparing her to Idina Menzel yet still making the role her own.

For a show about relationships, the chemistry onstage didn’t really mesh, particularly between the various lovers. With Angel’s death, I had a hard time believing any of the actors had ever really lost anyone due to a wasting disease like AIDS. (Whether or not the actors actually have is another story — that I didn’t see it is the point here.)

The Barn Players should be commended, though, for even attempting this piece. It’s not an easy production to put on — from the music to the casting to the fact that there is not only a Broadway version to compare it to, but a movie as well. It wasn’t bad considering all the baggage the show inherently has.

Rent closed November 21, 2010.

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