Jonathan Larson’s Rent is arguably one of the most loved, well-known, and overrated musicals there ever was. Everyone knows the story– eight twenty-somethings living in the East Village of New York City in the early 90s. They deal with love, loss, and AIDS while trying to keep themselves from being evicted from their homes.
Fredison Lo’s Mark Cohen leads us in as the narrator– a filmmaker whose only real woe is his girlfriend leaving him for another woman. Lo certainly looked the part, as if he was born an Asian version of Anthony Rapp (even getting the spastic hands down pat) but his chemistry with everyone else in the cast, especially Gian Magdangal’s Roger left much to be desired. He hit all his notes, had impeccable timing, but a huge chunk of his performance felt as if he was merely going through the motions.
Magdangal played Roger Davis, a fallen rockstar whose girlfriend committed suicide after realizing they have AIDS. Magdangal could not have been more unperturbed if he was intentionally trying to be dead pan. He was, as the play described his character, “a pretty boy front man”. What he seemed to lack was the anguish of being in Roger’s situation: dying of AIDS, losing a loved one, poverty. He knew what he needed to do– when to raise his voice, when to touch Mimi’s face, when to push and shove and grunt as his role dictated him– but a lot of his acting seemed contrived. He was not without redeeming factors, however. “One Song Glory” was outstanding. Aside from this stand-out song, Magdangal was almost miscast.
Another weak aspect of the production is the poor chemistry between Roger and Mimi Marquez (played by Cara Barredo), a teenaged exotic dancer with AIDS and a drug problem. Most of the time their romance seemed almost force-fed to the audience. There was a glimmer of hope for their pair-up during “I Should Tell You”, but it was quickly put out by everything that came after it. Barredo’s take on Mimi lacked the “oomphf” of what Mimi should have been.
Playing Angel Schunard was new comer Job Bautista. He stole every scene in a good way. Although his voice seemed strained in some parts, his dancing was breath-taking and there was a certain likable quality about him. His shining moment is without a doubt “Contact”. His performance was only complimented by the creative staging of Angel’s death.
Another newcomer of theater is balladeer OJ Mariano in the role of AIDS-stricken philosophy professor and vagabond anarchist Tom Collins. Mariano was right on the money– from his look, his voice, and his costume. If there was anyone the production lucked into casting for the perfect role, it was him. The “Reprise” was just heart-breaking, simply heart-breaking, and believably so. The emotion he exuded was so palpable it was the single most sincere moment of the entire play.
The chemistry between Bautista and Mariano was the highlight of the entire musical. It was the ice cream, whip and cherry of their production. It was the most inspiring and genuine of all love stories within the plot, filling the void where Mimi and Roger’s chemistry should’ve been. And then some.
Carla Guevara-Laforteza was a force to have witnessed on stage. She was just celebrity enough to pull off the scene-stealing nature of Maureen Johnson, a performance artist fighting against eviction of the tenants by corporate bosses. “Over the Moon”, an easily alienated performance in non-live versions because of its audience participation, was a delight to have finally watched as it should be– live and humorous. Miss Laforteza was fearless, hot, sexy, and provocative.
The two leads left– Jenny Villegas as Joanne, Maureen’s lawyer girlfriend, and Noel Rayos as Benjamin Coffin III, the evil ex-friend of the bohemians now trying to evict them, were good in their respective roles. Villegas was definitely a secondary presence with Laforteza as Maureen. Rayos’s Benny was the perfect mix of bad and good. His transition from enemy of Avenue A to the group’s hero was believable and endearing. A strong performance and very well-acted.
The ensemble was a saving grace: beautiful, beautiful voices. All big productions with their harmonies was a joy to have experienced. “Season’s of Love”, the play’s crowning glory, was beautiful and worth a special mention.
Overall, the play was delightful, although leaving one with an odd sense that something is missing. No matter the cast or the staging, the words of Jonathan Larson transcends lackluster performances and over-the-top acting. The beautiful message is still there– NO DAY BUT TODAY.