In its final production of the year, the Victoria College Drama Society took on a staple of the Broadway canon. Jonathan Larson’s Rent is a rock musical that has found its place in history as the quintessential depiction of bohemian life in late-1980’s Manhattan.
The action focuses on roommates Mark (Katie Pereira) and Roger (Michael Henley), and their neighbour Mimi (Mirabella Sundar Singh), who takes a liking to Roger. The guys are in conflict with their ex-roommate and now-landlord Benny (Winston Sullivan), who found wealth through marriage and abandoned his bohemian lifestyle. Benny demands that his former friends help him to suppress a rally planned by Mark’s recent ex-girlfriend, Maureen (Nithya Garg), against the clearing of a lot occupied by homeless New Yorkers in exchange for forgiveness of their rent.
With the help of her current girlfriend Joanne (Hannah Lazare), and recent couple Collins (Roddy Rodriguez) and Angel (Aaron Hale), Maureen’s rally continues, causing Mark and Roger to be locked out of their building. A series of conflicts ensue, as the group struggles with poverty, HIV diagnoses, drug addiction, and encroaching injustices brought on by consumerism and intolerance of their gender and sexual identities.
The production unfolded on an unassuming yet appropriate set. Adorned with graffiti and distinctly unkempt, the stage evoked a sense of New York City non-conformity. The pop-art computer projections behind the stage were hard to miss, as they often obscured the actors’ faces.
Director and choreographer Shak Haq succeeded in lending a politically charged, slightly anxious energy to the production. Media clippings from the time that the musical was first staged added authenticity and political weight to the plot.
The greatest strengths of Haq’s direction and choreography revealed themselves in large group numbers. The intimate physicality by the company in “Contact” pulled on all the viewers’ senses. “La Vie Boheme” and “Rent” also profited from a passionate sense of solidarity and a fearlessness of the slightly obscene.
The show lost energy at moments of transition where it relied too heavily on blackouts, and cast members frequently exited and entered the stage with no apparent motivation.
The show could have used many more technical runs to iron out glitches; Henley’s microphone was dysfunctional for the first act, and lighting queues often lagged, compromising the pace of what should be an energetic show.
Garg delivered a standout performance as Maureen. She portrayed the rash, self-absorbed siren convincingly, while never failing to delight listeners with her polished, energetic singing. The questionable blocking of “Take Me or Leave Me,” which involved an office chair and a stripper’s pole, was saved by the superior singing of both Garg and Lazare.
Sundar Singh’s Mimi found her stride in the second act, where her coy charm and vocal talent captivated the audience as well as Henley’s character. Hale stole the show with his dance performance in “Today 4 U,” while he and Rodriguez brought chemistry to the stage early on in “I’ll cover you.” Despite microphone problems, Henley delivered a consistent performance as Roger. Pereira’s acting as Mark shone, and they tied the production together nicely with thoughtful, well-executed monologues.