From May 3 to May 7, Baruch’s Mason Hall hosted its first musical in two decades, titled Rent. Rent's score was written by Jonathan Larson and the musical follows the life of a group of impoverished and starving artists, most of them living with AIDS, who reside in Alphabet City. The play both celebrates and criticizes the bohemian lifestyle. It is an ode to alternative lifestyles, celebrating both the beauty and the unglamorous elements of the starving artist.
In short, the musical was spectacular. The cast's energy was palpable with certain performances. Psychology major Shruthi Jayashankar's portrayal of Mimi Marquez and Danny Marin's rendition of Angel Dumott Schunard were exceptionally captivating and moving. Jayashankar 's performance as Mimi embodies the sultriness of the erotic dancer she was portraying, while Danny's acting channeled the confident and flamboyant kindness that is Angel. Every movement was deliberate and purposeful with many subtle actions being told in the background of the songs. The set pieces and props were extremely impressive. The curtain opened to reveal a graffiti stage filled with custom posters and added greatly to the feeling of an impoverished Alphabet City.
Baruch’s rendition of Rent was not without its own flaws. While the performers were excellent, their work could not be fully appreciated due to the sound issues that plagued the performance. At best, the audio on some of the microphones would cut out or end in loud punctuating static that ruined the flow of certain songs. At worst, the sound system would turn what should be a beautiful quartet into an unrecognizable cacophony of noise.
When the sound system was cooperating, the live band’s accompaniment complimented the singers’ performances and was neither too soft nor too loud as to overshadow the cast’s acting. This is less of a criticism on the musical’s sound team as it is on the 23rd Street Building’s notorious decrepit nature.
The play also stars Anton Kurdakov as Mark Cohen. Mark is a Jewish filmmaker living with Roger Davis, played by Nicholas Leung, who is an aspiring guitarist. Mark serves both the figurative and literal lens of the musical, allowing the viewers to see into the characters’ bohemian life style and how their viewpoint fits within the larger scope of Alphabet City.
Throughout the musical, he is seen filming in the background as the other characters sing. His narration for his film provides narration for most of the songs.With that being said, his character is fairly shallow, adding little to the musical as he is simply relegated to be the point of view character. This is a shame, as the character does not do Kurdakov’s acting justice. Kurdakov’s performance was lively but felt limited by how plain the character was. Leung’s performance deserves commendation. His chemistry with Jayashankar’s Mimi made for an extremely compelling relationship. It made their romance feel real and genuine. Their performance was captivating, swinging the audience through emotions of happiness and sadness as their relationship swung through love and hardship.
The play itself was a mixed bag. The first act was definitely stronger than the second, even with the moving death of Angel and the extremely popular “Seasons of Love” being in the second act.The first act focuses on Benjamin Coffin’s plan to build a cyber art studio and evict the homeless and the bohemian squatters from the lot where the musical takes place. While the first act focuses on the lives of the bohemians and celebrates their starving artist mentality, the subtext draws a dichotomy between homelessness and bohemianism.
While both of them share similar elements of starvation and poverty, the bohemians are detached from the larger issues that they share in common, instead focusing on their own artistic issues while making token efforts to feign interests in the larger social issues of poverty that plague Alphabet City.
The first act culminates in Maureen Johnson’s protest performance, played by Allergra Kuney, where she rambles on about vague and lofty metaphors. Ultimately, her overly pompous performance of “Over the Moon,” serves as a humorous song within the musical’s score and criticizes the bohemians for their detachment to the larger social structure they are within. The second act is still extremely compelling, albeit with some pacing issues. The second act throws the subplot of the bohemians vs. the homeless out the window in favor of themes regarding how pain unites people. The second act focuses on the separation of the group. Mark starts receiving job offers from an unreputable news source. Mimi and Roger’s relationship begins to strain and Angel begins to slowly die from AIDS. Angel succumbs to AIDS and his death marks the collapse of the circle of friends.
Jeffery White does an outstanding performance as Angel’s bereaved lover, Tom Collins. His grief pierces through the other characters’ petty bickering and gives them a sense of perspective all the while moving the audience to tears. He nurses the dying Angel in the background and steals the spotlight in doing so. His silent background performances in these parts are one of the most compelling of the entire musical. It was heartbreaking to see him spoon his dying lover in his last moments. The second act suffered from pacing issues as well. It uses many time lapses that make the plot hard to follow if not explained properly. This is especially exacerbated by the quick sequencing of the songs.
In general, each piece comes extremely quickly after another, which comes off as exhausting. But this quick pacing paired with the time lapses makes the second act extremely hard to follow. Certain plot points are not given enough time to register, causing the audience to get lost. A few songs were cut from the second act, which could explain the pacing issues. Even with the cut songs the second act felt hard to keep up with and overbearing on the audience.
What was especially hard to follow were the motives for the characters, such as why Mimi begins to see Benjamin or how does Benjamin go from trying to evict everyone to being good friends with the gang again.
Overall, Rent was refreshing and enjoyable. The musical offers both catharsis and humor in one package. The performances serve as a well-welcomed return of musical performances within Baruch. There is clearly a demand for such performances as the musical debuted in Baruch to a sold out audience.