Rent worth paying for.

As hurricane Ivan is knocking down buildings on the east coast, the breakthrough Broadway hit "Rent" is bringing down the house as it makes a visit to the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Coasta Mesa. This poignant and spirited drama is a dissection of surgical precision which probes through the dark and fleshy corners of the urban underground to see if it can locate, extract, and understand some of the frightening afflictions of the modern world. "Rent" is a musical that exposes the precarious relationships of a group of poverty stricken young adults who battle forces of disease, addiction, dejection, and emotional despair.  The opening night was a saucy, energetic, and emotionally unnerving performance that made the audience think and feel wonderfully uncomfortable and wholly engrossed. A resounding standing ovation was the cast's reward.

When I walked into the beautiful Orange County Performing Arts Center I had no idea what to expect from the production. The Theatre was a stunning achievement itself, screaming in support of a new modern architecture paradigm. Outside while you are waiting for the show, you'll have your pick of poison depite whether that is a Tom Collins or a cup of Earl Grey. The Inside of the theatre is warm and cozy, stained in an earthy maroon, with walls rising up like those of a canyon, and all reminiscent of those early stages of cubism when Braque and Picasso were still battling each other for mastery of that new experimental technique; Braque's hand would have been only slightly more at ease painting the theatres faceted walls and protruding sound boards. Two rows of folding chairs had been set up in front of the first row of orchestra seating. They would be filled by patrons who could buy the seats for twenty dollars a piece, twenty minutes before show time with cash only; a tradition that started with the Rents orginal debut on Broadway to entice a younger and more financially unstable crowd into the mix. It is after all, that social class that is being best represented by the cast on stage. The set was also set up in a strange new fashion. The orchestra was set up on stage, discreet yet still visible under a protective canopy. The set itself was appropriate. Decorated lightly but effectively with a brick laden backdrop, scaffolding, folding tables and a Chinese lantern moon. It is in ideal keeping with the stories setting, themes and messages told through the struggling artists, of which Larson himself was one of. An elaborate set would be grossly inappropriate for Larson and his wishes to grace the stage without selling out. The set changes very little and instead of wheeling around walls and furniture Rent uses dramatic lighting to suggest space and emphasize actions.

The Performance, as I have said already, was outstanding. I have not seen the original production, but two spectators, one on either side of me, that had seen it in 1996 assured me afterwards that it lived up in almost all respects to the parent production. The young and jubilant cast was seductive. The Musical score is upbeat and supplements well the impromptu and spoken-word influenced lyrics. As a man next to me put it so succinctly "Rent is a show that you need to see more then once." Its implications and explorations into the sociology of modern America are so deep and far reaching that they may not all be given due attention at the same time. Rent is filled with characters of enormous depth, diversity and dynamism. Though they are most commonly labeled as outcasts, being composed of drag queens, S&M Dancers, lesbians, Junkies, and street artists of the underground, universal subjects such as friendship, love, death, and truth can be felt by almost all members of the audience regardless of race, or sexual orientation.

Rent is poetic, insightful and refreshing. It seems that few popular forms of art deal effectively with the more sensitive issues that most of America would like to forget exist. The forms that do address them rarely get much publicity. Problems steming from things like class disparity, rising corporate power, and privitized control of the media generally get buried with the ones who attempt to bring them to light. The more effective of visionaries understand that by diluting unconventional new ideas with more traditional ones, it is easier to gain acceptance by popular culture. So then, has Rent succeeded in pushing the envelope just enough to be profound, while still adhering to enough rules to save it from being cast into exile by the general audience? After witnessing Vulgar Gestures, mild profanity, and a moment when an actor had the entire audience mooing like cows I would have to say that it is almost an exception to the rule.

The musical's creator Jonathan Larson, who died of aortic aneurysm right before Rent hit stages in 1996, spent 7 years creating a story that defines the human condition as it plays out in the very real and relevant 21 century countryside. Larson's endeavors sought out the themes of puccini's opera "La Boheme" and took to the work of translating it into something appreciable by the American youth of today. The title of the play itself represents the type of rent that many of us today can relate to. I am of course referring to the cold-hearted, apathetic kind that asks to be paid by the first of each month despite the steadfast advance of the shadow of hardship. The fact that some people have one part time job selling Gap clothing, and one other part time job stealing Gap clothing so that they may sell it to the homeless at reasonable prices does not penetrate the senses of this amoral monstrosity. Nor does it care about their so called "side projects" that they say will inevitably project them into stardom one day. If the title (Rent) is applied as a symbol for the unreasonable demands of society on it's less fortunately caste members then we may be closer to understanding the true message of Larson's story. But you don't have to be a squatter to appreciate the show; there are plenty of other ideas to keep you occupied.  Perhaps even more penetrating are reminders of other human engagements, specifically love, and love as it is eclipsed by the advent of death, that claw mercilessly at the heart.

Rent pushes limits. It is seen by some as an immediate classic and by others as outright operatic antithesis. Everything about the production forces outwards and bends traditional confinements, forcing its way into acceptance like a fat man in a mini skirt. Does it work? Undeniably, it does. The forces of morbid curiosity hold our retreating eyes fixed to any like taboo. It works so well in fact that since it's incarnation on Broadway in 1996 the production gathered so many awards that year, including The Pulitzer Prize for drama, that it would make this review too lengthy to include them all. Still, the overwhelming acclaim the show received was unable to thwart the assault that came from more conservative critiques whose derisory balks attempt to undermine the unseemly union; that is, returning to the analogy above, they wince at the robustly extroverted rolls of Rent's fleshy love handles as it allows them to suffocate the delicate pink tutu it has tried on. What do I think? I think that you should get out to Segerstrom Hall this weekend to catch "Rents" last few performance dates and enjoy one of the most talked about musicals of modern times before it turns into a bad hollywood movie starring Justin Timberlake.

Rent is Playing at Segerstrom Hall September 14-19, 2004

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