Collaborative Stage’s RENT: Bohemians Rave On

by Jack Shaw

Members of the cast of RENT, Collaborative Stage Productions at the Eagle Theatre in Hammonton NJ through February 11. (Photo credit: Chris Miller)

RENT rocks and more…

Collaborative Stage Production’s inaugural show under its new name had to be RENT, a rock musical to bring down the house. And, that it did the night I saw it. A well-earned standing ovation. A Bohemian rave for this production.

I was otherwise engaged so I had to miss opening night, which I’m sure was stellar, too, but I am so glad I saw it tonight. RENT, based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème, is one of those shows that is so complex and can be filled with so much symbolism and meaning, some theatre goers who like their musicals light, simple and with songs you sing in the shower might not attend. I tend to like musicals with something to say, but I can also appreciate something lighter, too. I had to be coaxed a little to see the show initially when it was on tour in DC. Admittedly then, I found it much more maudlin, but that wasn’t the case here.

Collaborative Stage’s production is more lively, more Bohemian in the first act with the music and sound more memorable than the original, and the second act’s symbolism was a bit more unclear for me, but it’s that kind of play. The production values were still high. Some of the symbolism may not make sense to a non-Bohemian (that would be me) and that’s okay. I thoroughly enjoyed the show. It makes sense in the end.

The music is always phenomenal in the hands of this professional ensemble. It is a new company, but the musical performers were not. The sound and light system is the best by far I’ve seen anywhere short of well-equipped professional houses in Philadelphia. Note to theaters starting out: don’t skimp on sound and lighting. It makes a difference. Especially with a musical.

Actors love to be in a show, but when they say, “I love this show,” it has a whole different meaning. That was what I felt here–that the actors loved the show, what it said to them, what it said to us and the manner in which it did it on stage. The result is a show that reverberated with feeling and truth.

When this show came out (the one I saw in DC), my wife and I felt we were among the oldest in the audience. I can honestly say that was not the way it was tonight. The acceptance of a more “Bohemian” lifestyle has come a long way since then. Today instead of Gypsies we have the “Homeless. Whatever the reason, society doesn’t appreciate that freedom of choice. Are we getting any better. We are at least more interested. It has made the play’s audience even bigger. Not bad for a play that ran for 12 years on Broadway and had to change theatres to accommodate larger audiences. I won’t do a comparison of La Bohème other than to say AIDS/HIV was used to replace leukemia in the Puccini Opera. RENT covered more territory than the opera in that the story was more complex–so complex it had to be re-written and shortened several times before it took its final form on stage.

The themes are the same, or reasonable facsimiles because one could argue it is a matter of degree. La Bohème did have leukemia to bring a young, sudden demise. RENT has AIDS/HIV. Of course, there are other surprises. Not always good ones. The first act takes on the idea of uncertainty, of the shock of suddenly knowing death is imminent. What happens to all our dreams? Do we write one last song or one last novel?

What we do with that knowledge is important. Do we live each day as though there is no tomorrow? A Bohemian lifestyle makes sense in that case. What do we do about the others around us? Do we feel sorry for ourselves? Do we run away? Do we leave them devastated, caring for us and feeling helpless? Who are we to do that?

Life can be short and should be enjoyed moment by moment – it is an old theme, but there are variations here that warrant our attention. AIDS/HIV gave society a sudden and sad reminder that bad things happen everyday and that is why we should pay attention to the decisions we make today and not squander happiness. Life is no good alone or doing what we think other people think we should do. Love makes a difference, and it doesn’t matter who we love, or how we love, if it makes us happy–if only for a day. Who are we to judge others who should be in charge of their own happiness?

Artists and musicians are often known to be penniless unless they have a benefactor or a lot of luck so the idea of a more modern Bohemian lifestyle that faces our homeless makes a strong statement. We should do more. Does society have to be so rigid? Do people have to be so selfish when they’ve “made it?” Aren’t we all family? RENT rubs our noses in it. And, we probably deserve it.

Now, if all this sounds deep and troubling, it’s presented in a lively, musical, and dramatic way you will find memorable. At times the play is light, uplifting even and sad, but it does what good theatre does: it makes us feel something. And, sometimes, what we don’t want to hear. See for yourself.

Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème
January 20-February 10, 2012
Collaborative Stage Productions
at The Eagle Theatre
208 Vine Street

Hammonton NJ 08037

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