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Nashville Scene The Young Ones

"Rent" offers youth-oriented story for all ages

By Maureen Needham

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  Bag ladies, HIV-positives, coke snorters, and a ragtag motley crew of multi-ethnics from the modern-day East Village took over TPAC's Jackson Hall last weekend. The bohos from Soho claim squatters' rights until Feb. 7, when the musical Rent continues on its North American tour, augmented by two other touring companies crisscrossing the continent simultaneously.

The late playwright-composer Jonathan Larson sought to write a rock musical that could speak to the generation lodged at the end of the millennium. And indeed, part of Rent's youth appeal lies in its successful integration of pop music with dramatic theater--a hard act to accomplish. The "orchestra" consists of a five-piece rock band, heavy on keyboard, drums, and electric guitar. Each one different from the other, the songs incorporate everything from reggae to rock 'n' roll to Puccini's La Bohéme. The dramatic structure is equally chaotic, with quick-changing episodic shifts.

This may appeal to people who have been raised on television and so are accustomed to rapid cuts from one scene to the next. Larson's disjointed style is taken to an extreme, however, making it difficult for the audience to get a coherent sense of the story line or a true feel for the characters' development.

Christian Mena, for example, who played the leading role of Roger, was stuck in his character's anger for much of the evening. He had little opportunity to show why and how Roger suddenly chose to come out of the hermitic existence in which he had been wallowing for six months. In contrast, Scott Hunt, as the filmmaker Mark, was allocated an entire song in which he considered the possibilities of "selling out" by--horrors!--going to work for a commercial film studio. Given this opportunity, Hunt ably conveyed the sincerity of his decision to remain as the poor, struggling artist despite the temptations of mammon.

With few exceptions, most of the play's main roles consist of high-tech kids living a low-rent life. In one of the opening songs, Mark laments, "How are we going to pay last year's rent?" even as he films each and every word on his expensive camera; Roger, meanwhile, joins in on electric guitar.

While we watch the cavorting antics of the young and dispossessed, we also see Mom and Dad's suburban safety net in action as telephone answering machines record parents' concerns for the health and well-being of their darling sons and daughters. The contrast between the kids' poverty and that of New York's street people is effectively commented upon by Wichasta Reese, who plays a bag lady with a big, beautiful voice.

Perhaps the play's greatest appeal, though, lies in its highly talented cast of actors and singers, who render the story accessible to young and old alike. Pierre Angelo Bayuga is enchantingly vulnerable in the role of Angel, the Good Samaritan transvestite who rescues Tom Collins after he has been attacked by thugs. Bayuga is careful not to overplay his character and instead stresses the tender concern that Angel demonstrates for everyone. The extremely beautiful and talented singer Julia Santana had no need to borrow a match in her song, "Light My Candle," because she brought a radiance all her own to the stage. Of all the members of this talented cast of newcomers, she offered the most outstanding stage presence.

The entire cast deserves great credit for their vivacity, their musical talents, their dedicated ensemble work, and most of all the simplicity with which they enacted their parts. Rent may be widely popular and a critical success, but these actors have not succumbed to slick professionalism or the simpering smiles so typical of most Broadway productions. When the street people perform a choreographic ensemble, they don't attempt to point their toes or spin rapid pirouettes; instead, they convey in their movements the grunginess of life on the street.

The actors, as a whole, live up to their creator's intent. That's probably about as high a compliment as can be given to them, considering that Jonathan Larson wanted to embody "the future of the American musical theater." Hopefully, all those Broadway producers too scared to attempt anything beyond safe revivals of West Side Story or State Fair will sit up and take notice. Judging from Rent's overwhelming success, audiences of all ages welcome both old and new.

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