Review: South Stage’s Rent is a Testament to Genuine Enthusiasm and Artistry

"Viva la vie bohème!"

By Chloe Frantzis
Managing Editor of Arts

The most anticipated Southstage production of the year, Jonathan Larson’s RENT, premiered Thursday night at 7:30 in the Seasholes Auditorium. South has been trying to gain rights to RENT for years, and the excitement of finally getting the chance to perform this cult classic was clearly visible in the actors. There was such a sense of community among the cast, and their joy translated into each and every number.  

The show centers around a group of “bohemians,” living in the low-income, artsy district of New York City during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Although there is no central protagonist or antagonist, RENT follows eight friends through a year of their lives and examines their struggles with money, addiction, and disease. Despite all their issues, though, they manage to find a way to achieve artistic and emotional fulfillment, measuring their life in love.

Despite a wide array of interwoven story lines, the show clearly blends the various characters’ stories together, creating a musical masterpiece. Not only are the characters uniquely loveable and relatable, but the music is the other component which grants the show its wide popularity. RENT’s rock-and-roll style sets it apart from most musicals, meaning it can also be much harder to perform– but South’s talent does the show justice. The production kicks off with an electric guitar-heavy song, “Rent”, which encapsulates the character’s frustrations, as they wonder “how we gonna pay last year’s rent?”

The set of the show was intricately designed by senior Merrick Carroll with graffitied walls, metal balconies, and plenty of miscellaneous city garbage, which perfectly mirrors New York’s Alphabet City. Furthermore, the costumes and makeups for RENT are traditionally difficult, as the looks of these over-the-top characters are highly iconic– particularly that of Angel, played by senior Noah Weisskopf. Since Angel is a drag queen, finding a way to accurately and appropriately portray her character can be difficult for the designer and actor. Still,  Costume Designer Ellie Kissin and Makeup Designer Alisa Rabin showed no fear, dressing Weisskopf in colorful outfits, sparkly red eyeshadow, rainbow wigs, and a good pair of five inch platform heels. When Angel first walked on stage as a drag queen for her song “Today 4 U”, the crowd went beserk and erupted in cheers. Accurately pulling off a character like Angel is quite a task, but Weisskopf could not have done a better job:he exemplified Angel’s spirit, kindness, and energy, while doing it all in those heels!

Not only did Weisskopf’s stellar performance receive a cheer, but when Mimi (senior Naomi Honig) entered stage right for her first song of the night, “Light My Candle”, the crowd erupted with clapping and cheering. Honig’s characterization of Mimi’s flirtatious personality and her persistence made her a popular character among the crowd– but Honig’s portrayal Mimi’s hidden “baggage” is what kept the audience captivated until the very end. Similarly, senior Ethan Koss-Smith’s melodic, silvery voice blends well with Roger’s aloof yet sentimental nature. In his solo song, “One Song Glory”, Koss-Smith sang at a lower register than that of the Broadway recording and movie. In these well known versions of the song, the singer almost seems to be yelling at the crowd, rather than moving them. Koss-Smith’s deeper interpretation poured more emotion and sympathy into the song, sending chills down the audience’s spine.  

On the topic of moving performances, Maureen’s (junior Windley Knowlton) “Over the Moon” was definitely the quirkiest, spookiest, awesomest performance of the night. Knowlton’s spirit and energy breathed life into the character, leaving the audience laughing and hanging on to each word. Although there is no was to accurately summarize Maureen’s performance, it’s clear that it left a lasting impression.

Although these upperclassmen in leading roles rocked their performances, there was also some younger talent that shone through.“Will I”, a tearjerker song that addresses the struggles of AIDS, opened with a brief solo from freshman Ethan Kopf. His lyrical and angelic voice set the tone for the rest of the number, and when he reached the highest note, all of the audience held their breath in awe. Furthermore, the cast opened Act 2 with RENT’s most famous number, “Seasons of Love.” Although this was an ensemble piece, sophomore Darby Wilson had a solo that ended with such a loud cheer, no one could hear the next five seconds of the song.

Although every single song and performance was treated with uttermost love and passion, the clear showstopper of the night was “La Vie Boheme”, a song which has more than 1,000 words and includes the entire cast.  “La Vie Boheme” is a song which celebrates all the aspects of the bohemian lifestyle– and life in general. The song was beautifully choreographed, opening with all the cast gathered around a table shrugging their shoulders to the beat. The number quickly escalates from there, as actors begin to parade around the room, dance on tables, and just generally go crazy. The actors were beaming with celebratory grins by the end of the number, leaving the audience with full hearts and wide smiles.

What I think was so marvelous about RENT, and Southstage productions in general, is that there is no fake enthusiasm– everyone supports each other, whether or not they have a leading role. On that Wednesday evening before opening night, I peered backstage to the rehearsal, and I will never forget what I saw. I witnessed cast members cheering on the singers on stage as they hit a hard note, or rocked a chorus line. They were quietly singing along, arms around each other, loving and living the moment. Afterall, there is no day like today. This kind of love and support really touched me, and it is clear that this behavior is what fosters a legendary performance.