A word to those who’ve never seen a show at the Firehouse Theatre on Broad Street: the setting is intimate. Expect to shatter your own personal bubble and those of several others around you as soon as you’re seated. Also don’t expect to mind it much – it’s part of the fun.
The stylishly-outfitted and space-efficient Firehouse was full to legal capacity for the company’s premiere of Jonathan Larson’s RENT. In case you somehow haven’t heard of it, the 1996 rock opera, with characters and plot based on Puccini’s La Boheme, follows a group of young artists in New York’s Lower East Side as they struggle to live, love and make art under the oppressive shadow of poverty and HIV/AIDS.
This production comes fresh on the heels of VCU Theater’s production of “The Who’s Tommy” at the Singleton Center last spring semester, itself a noted rock opera that hit Broadway three years before RENT.
In addition to gaining status as a “gateway drug,” as director Jase Smith put it, for an entire generation of young musical theater enthusiasts, RENT garnered far-flung fame and notoriety in its early days for its compassionate human portrayal of HIV/AIDS sufferers and romantic relationships between homosexuals. That and for the cool music, ostensibly.
“I think that for a lot of people in their twenties and thirties, they got ‘hooked’ into theater from RENT,” Smith said, who has directed a number of other plays at the Firehouse. “The first time I saw it on Broadway, over ten years ago, I was way in the nosebleed seats – but it was still the coolest thing I’d ever seen in the world.”
Smith said he thinks RENT’s message is just as relevant to the Richmond audience in 2010 as it was in New York in 1996. “At its heart, it’s a love story, first and foremost,” he said. “Secondly, it’s a story about acceptance – people finding acceptance within themselves, and also within their community and the world at large.
“Those are two of the most basic human needs, beyond breathing and eating and drinking water – everyone wants to find love, and everyone wants to be accepted for who they are,” he explained. “Even though the story’s about people with AIDS and drug addictions, and things that might be very abstract for a lot of people in the world, anyone could relate to these people – wanting to find love and acceptance.”
There was no shortage of love in the Firehouse tonight, in any case – here at opening night, even as the lights dimmed and we squeezed past each other in the aisles, audience members from all walks of life were chatting and laughing like they’ve known each other for years. The intimate setting, again, is not a bad thing.
If your familiarity with RENT stops short at the 2005 film version, you’re in for a treat with the live show – assuming you’re into the music. Where the film takes liberties making traditional “scenes” out of prose dialogue, the Firehouse production keeps all the music of the original score: you’ll hear a lot more singing – a sort of pop recitative – and less “talking.” The resulting experience lends much more credence to RENT as a rock opera, as opposed to a musical. The scenery changes are minimal, making creative and effective use of movable stage pieces and striking, vivid lighting straight from a rock concert.
The focus on the music is no unwelcome feature – the live band rocks solid without overpowering the cast, who are themselves electric and versatile as singers. Ensemble pieces navigate Sondheim-esque dialogues with ease, some of which are treacherously intricate, and the main characters run the range of belting operatics to tender guitar ballads.
Terence Sullivan as Roger – a lovestruck songwriter coming to terms with his illness – shines especially in his low-key sets, his voice soaring and impassioned even at his most alone (“One Song Glory”, “Without You”). Joy Newsome, in addition to her voracious vocal work, comes out as both vulnerable and sophisticatedly hilarious in her treatment of Joann – a high-powered lawyer balancing her career with her flighty free-spirit partner, Maureen (“Take Me or Leave Me”). As Maureen, too, Jacquelynn Camden brings her character’s solo performance piece (“Over the Moon”) to a transcendent climax where the entire audience bursts out mooing. You read that right.
Durron Tyre as Tom Collins, from whom we hear tantalizingly little through the first part of the play, gives a staggering surprise performance in the second act that – without giving away the plot – can only be described as heartbreaking.
The final number, which had the audience standing and clapping and singing the now-iconic “Seasons of Love” with the cast, certainly fit with director Smith’s assessment of the play’s message.
“It’s sort of like giving birth,” Smith said, describing his experience directing the show. “Depending on how your hormones are, sometimes it’s wonderful and happy and you’re eating ice cream and pickles – Other times you wish this had never ever happened to you.”
But regardless, “There’s a due date – you just hope that it comes out with ten toes and ten fingers.” If the resounding approval of us in the audience is any indicator, RENT at the Firehouse has had a healthy birth – with all 20 of digits intact.
Jonathan Larson’s Rent will run at the Firehouse Theatre at 1609 W. Broad St. until August 1st. Showtimes are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and with “pay-what-you-will” matinees at 4 p.m. on Sundays. The Sunday, July 4, matinee will benefit the Fan Free Clinic and be followed with a talk-back event including the director and cast. Regular tickets are $27 for adults, $24 for seniors 65 and older, and $12 for students.