Presented by the Suffolk University Theatre Department
Book, Music & Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Paul Melone
Musical Direction by Scott Nicholas
Review by Travis Manni
(Boston, MA) So here we are again. Same play, another day, and another production. This time, the cherished show made its way to the Suffolk University Theatre Department.
If you still don’t know the story of Rent, I highly suggest watching the “Filmed Live on Broadway” version, a tip that I wish I could’ve given to the cast of this production, which seemed to draw too much from the lackluster Hollywood adaptation. Regardless, Rent is the story of a group of poor underdogs living in New York City struggling with relationships, rent payments and health complications. An old friend is trying to ring in a new age of technological advancement but the group see it as selling out and pursue their own artistic freedom to thwart his plans.
The set for Suffolk’s production was both respectful to the typical Rent stage design, but also had a couple cute Suffolk signs to provide some original flare. And the band perfectly planted me in the world of Rent. It took everything in me not to just close my eyes and tap my feet to the rock opera music. This nonvisual method of experiencing the show may have also helped with its believability because, unfortunately, a large percentage of the actors were unable to act and sing at the same time.
While the majority of performers in this production reached the vocal demands needed to pull this show off, almost all members of the cast lacked any ability to act out any emotions. It became so glaringly difficult to watch actor after actor deliver their songs with nice, though safe, melodies and harmonies while simply standing in a single position on stage, devoid of action and emotion. I wondered if this was an intentional decision from the director because of how consistent the stiff performances were, but the lack of emotional depth couldn’t have been an intentional choice (I hope).
And I don’t think I was alone in this impression. The entire audience felt very disconnected and unengaged throughout the show, politely clapping after each musical number but never really letting loose and buying into the story. For a student-run production, I would’ve expected more enthusiasm, but I think we were all drained watching the actors lazily, and unsuccessfully, try to convince us that they were having a good time on stage. Matt Bittner as Roger had the vocal talent to get me snapping my fingers* at points, but couldn’t sell the character beyond the range of angry and unhappy. Kevin J.P. Hanley as Mark proved an apt narrator but felt unsteady and uncertain, never able to add anything fresh to the character. Elainy Mata as the young Mimi felt over rehearsed and fell flat during “Out Tonight”. Andrew John Bourque as Benjamin Coffin III was lost onstage, hiding behind his sunglasses for much of his performance. Rory Lambert-Wright as Tom Collins was reserved and shy, and it probably didn’t help that his reprise of “I’ll Cover You” was trimmed down by a verse or two. Erica Wisor as Maureen managed to get out a few chuckles during her protest performance, but couldn’t portray any chemistry with co-star Asha Hirsi as Joanne Jefferson, who conquered the soulful solo during “Seasons of Love”.
However, one actor who was able to brighten up the stage was Matthew Solomon as the all-loving Angel. Though I must admit his vocal range wasn’t up to par for the iconic role, falling short during the sexual rock anthem “Contact”, he was the only cast member that really sold his character during every second of his performance.
I was also pleasantly surprised during the show’s final scene when Roger sings a reprise of “One Song Glory” instead of the traditional “Your Eyes” to the dying Mimi, providing a new layer to Roger’s psyche, as well as the song. And though Mata’s rendition of Mimi was a bit uninspired, my favorite part of the entire show was when she sang “Without You,” a beautifully isolating ballad that was the first genuine spark of emotion in the show, though I fear the spark was too late to get the audience invested. Finally, the costumes in this show were consistently on point. I mean it is Rent so you can’t go too crazy, but Elisabetta Polito’s costume design choices fit nicely into the world while still providing a fresh twist to the show’s typical 90s-centric, bohemian themes.
Overall, this was a fun production, but the performers were so focused on trying to nail the songs that they forgot to act. Still, there were many highlights and redeeming moments that made it worth my time, and I’ve yet to regret seeing a production of Rent.
*a congratulatory tick of mine; a nonverbal YAASSS