Tangoing with ‘Rent’

Blue Canoe Productions' 'Rent'. The title and presenting companies are noted. There is an animation of a brick wall with four different coloured windows and shadows inside them.

A group of young artists puts on a musical about young artists in a festival for young artists. Blue Canoe Productions and the 2024 Juvenis Festival present Rent, directed by Dylan Chenier. 

Jonathan Larson’s Rent, loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, tells the story of young artists as they traverse through gentrification, love, and the HIV and AIDS epidemic present in the 80s and 90s. With New York City as their home, the contrast between the rich and those struggling is ever present. This dynamic specifically takes hold between Benny (Rowan Engen) and the friends he left behind to marry into wealth. Although the core group who remain is not without unfriendly banter. Joanne (Syd Chinnick) and Maureen (Juliette Silveira)—who, by the way, is Mark (Elias Elaneh)’s ex-girlfriend—can’t seem to keep their relationship comfortably afloat after Maureen’s stint with cheating. And then there’s Roger (Jeremy Settle)’s newfound love, Mimi (Lalaine Upgo), who just so happens to have a past with Benny. The only two seemingly escaping a turbulent relationship are Tom Collins (Will Mercer) and Angel (James Osmond), the one pair whose love for each cannot be shaken, nor stirred. 

As the filmmaker, Mark draws an audience in and leads them through the stories that unfold. He shapes them, unbiased yet with care, and is never found without his camera to capture the genuinity of what he sees. Elaneh seems to step into this role with a bit of nerves, not quite suspending the audience with the confidence and lively narration he achieves by the end of the musical. I chalk quite a bit of this up to opening night jitters and being the first speaker of the show, especially as Elaneh’s performance increasingly impressed me throughout the two-and-a-half hour run. His and Chinnick’s duet of “The Tango Maureen” is an especially powerful number. Challenging the other the whole way through, they have an undeniable chemistry as stage partners with their voices equally as complimentary. 

However, my favourite duet of the show is undoubtedly “Take Me Or Leave Me” performed by Chinnick and Silveira. Vocal ranges and contrasting characters are on high display as the stringent and suited-up Joanne battles with the hair-flailing, wild-eyed Maureen. It’s an excellent display of what these performers have to give but also empowering to see two full-hearted and strong-stanced women declare their refusal to be anything but themselves. Two other stand-outs are Mercer and Settle. The latter tackles the vocals that would have belonged to an old-school rock n’ roll singer and emerges successful. Meanwhile Mercer has a certain stage presence and charisma that can only be gleaned by having a true passion for performing. 

A few times, there are performers who escape their ranges to attempt some high notes that don’t quite hit the mark. But Rent is a challenging musical to perform as it leans on the vocals so heavily. Many of the songs require mind-boggling vocal strength to make for a skin-prickling reaction rather than the catchy, comedic, or showmanship-type songs seen in so many other musicals. Granted, Rent does have a few of these but a slim amount compared to the rest of its genre.

Set design by Liam Derbyshire is exemplary. The stage is long with audiences on either side. At each end lengthwise, there are heightened platforms that I would like to call ‘mini stages’. The walls are plastered with ripped posters and two wooden platforms on wheels that lie centre-stage and are malleable to be whatever they need to be. The pre-existing black box space only caters to the design and I like to think Derbyshire sought this out. 

Costume design by Reilly Sullivan brings out the characters’ personalities with ease. Everything is simple—nothing over-the-top and nothing underdone. Personal favourites are Maureen’s vest and jeans that make for a quirky yet sexy look and Angel’s perfectly fitted Santa Claus slip. 

Onto the script. Rent’s themes and topics should be given a spotlight and this musical received a very positive reception when it was released in 1996, maintaining a Broadway run of over 12 years. But nearly 30 years post-debut, Larson’s script seems to lack smoothness and glamorize poverty. The issue of gentrification is present the whole show but the specific concerns of eradicating a homeless community disappear midway through without resolution. Maybe it’s a purposeful commentary? But despite the afflictions I have with the script, Larson does, at the very least, open the door for anyone who sees this production to have strong conversations about gentrification, HIV and AIDS, and queerness. 

Blue Canoe Productions in partnership with the Juvenis Festival is presenting its last run of ‘Rent’ tomorrow, May 12th, 2024 at the Rotunda Theatre. More information can be found here.

Trellis HIV & Community Care is a Kingston organization that provides stigma-free HIV/AIDS education, Harm Reduction, and support services. Click here for more information.