Rent is a musical about transitions in life and relationships. The “in-between times” are always the most magical. You can see it in a day: there is a special magic to sunrise, noon, sunset, and midnight, and of course we always feel a magic in the change of seasons. These are times of transition, where anything is possible and the next phase is full of excitement and potential.
Rent, which just opened at Mysterium Theater in Santa Ana, CA, is about the magic of a different transitional time: the transition from the young, carefree life of your early 20’s to the responsibilities and concerns of “mainstream” adult life. Each character navigates the delicate gap between young fun and adult responsibility in their own way, and each one has to deal with the consequences of their choices.
For some, such as Angel and Roger, the choice to avoid responsibility leads to disease, addiction, and death. For others, such as Benny, the choice to accept it leads to alienation from the friends they love. The entire first act takes place on Christmas Eve, an important magical time in our culture, and follows the clashing of these two energies through the holidays of the next year until the characters are able to look back on their choices on the following December 24. The characters of Rent grow and change through their clashes with life’s seasonal and personal transitions: New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, rehab, Halloween, love, illness, and death. It is a magical year that transforms each character.
Mysterium has assembled a talented young cast that seems wise beyond its years as it tackles this very heavy rock musical. Leading the cast are Ian James as small-time documentary filmmaker Mark Cohen and Luis Ochoa as his roommate, the brooding, HIV-infected Roger Davis. James and Ochoa effectively carry much of the show, as they act as the central hub of the show’s intertwining storylines. James plays Mark with a clear optimism that counterpoints poignantly with Ochoa’s desperate pessimism and desire to drive away any possible source of pain.
When Andrea Somera as Roger’s “born to be bad” neighbor Mimi throws a wrench into Roger’s plans to brood his life away, forcing him to see love and actually face pain, she brings out more and more emotion in Ochoa’s characterization of Roger.
The other catalyst to the show, the antagonist if there is one, is Vincent Anicento as Roger and Mark’s landlord/ex-friend Benny. Anicento strongly portrays Benny’s noveau-riche cynicism, which drives the plot along.
In the midst of this clash comes the redemption love story of computer genius/anarchist Collins (Miguel Cardenas) and Bohemian drag queen Angel (Benjamin Alicea). Alicea’s constant sweetness challenges the cynicism of Cardenas’ Collins, and we can see the genuine love between the two of them grow as their relationship gets stronger and stronger, constantly proving the transformative power of love in the face of doubters like Roger.
The final clash in the story is between idealism and realism, and it is represented by Mark’s ex Maureen (Jillian Lawson) and her new girlfriend, Joanne (Natasha Reese), a lawyer from a wealthy family. Put-together and stern, Reese’s exasperation at Lawson’s free-spirit Maureen touches on some very believable conflicts any two people may have in a relationship. Where Lawson is radiant and takes command of her stage time, Reese organizes and helps others perform, and both of those are exactly consistent with their characters.
The cast navigates their way through emotional conflicts and terrifying challenges, often with humor, sometimes with terrible sadness. Their characters transform through one magical year of transition, beginning and ending their journey on Christmas Eve, and each actor grows develops their character along their appropriate path. Backing them up along the way is a talented chorus who each plays multiple roles as they provide the background for the journey of each main character.
Director Rovin Jay and choreographer Sonya Randall take full advantage of the small stage, but they are helped immensely in that endeavor by Eugene McDonald’s multi-level set. The set for Rent is Spartan, as it takes place either in a bare New York apartment loft or in a homeless tent city on the streets of New York City. But McDonald’s set incorporates stairs, a catwalk, and a set of moveable tables to create more variety within the bare stage. Jay and Randall navigate their actors up, down, around, and across all of these simple set pieces to effectively create the illusion of a larger stage.
Sometimes the sound levels were off, and that can damage the storytelling. Rent is a grungy rock musical, so it’s completely appropriate for the music to be loud. But the story arc of the show is mostly told through its lyrics. Only a little exposition is spoken, almost all of the story’s important points are told through song, so the actors’ voices need to amplified enough to be clearly heard over the rocking musical accompaniment. This didn’t happen often enough, unfortunately, so some of the plot got lost. This is a completely fixable problem, however.
Rent challenges us with life’s pain, from AIDS to drug addiction to suicide. It also encourages us with life’s beauty: love, art, and friendship. It tells us to find that magical place where they pain and the beauty meet so that we can transform our lives through all of our many Seasons of Love.
Rent at Mysterium Theater
19211 Dodge Ave
Santa Ana, CA 92705
Performances February 21 – March 15
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays: 8:01 p.m.
Sundays: 2:01 and 5:01 p.m.