Theatre Review: Rent at the Ringwald

Theatre Review: Rent at the Ringwald

The Spirit of Rent: Christine Chemello as Mimi

The Spirit of Rent: Christine Chemello as Mimi

I hate Rent. Since seeing it performed at the Fox Theatre almost a decade ago, I’ve been pretty outspoken about how over-the-top, hyper-sentimentalized, and over-hyped I thought it was. After all the buzz, I was simply disappointed. I was further perturbed by the fact that this rock opera about bohemian artists grappling with poverty, discrimination, and AIDS in New York’s squatter artist community Alphabet City was in direct and almost hypocritical contrast to the big-budget Broadway production that was attracting crowds from all over the country and legions of die-hard “Rent-heads,” all of whom could afford to purchase the hefty $85 Broadway tickets. To me, the very people that made it the smashing success it had become (one of the most successful musicals of all time) were by socio-economic nature incapable of relating to the characters that the musical was actually about. The irony was simply too thick; coupled with the fact that I related its achievement to the ridiculous Cats—which is and always will be the de facto reference point for all over-produced, excessively cloying, mass-marketed musicals—and the very thought of Rent made me weary, sighing the way only a self-important know-it-all like myself can sigh, especially when other self-important know-it-alls would lecture me on how wrong I was.

After seeing the Who Wants Cake? Theatre’s production of Rent at the Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale…I was wrong. I specifically wanted to see this production because I knew if there were any theatre troupe that could make me like this musical, it would be Who Wants Cake? By the finale, teary-eyed after Angel Dumott Schunard’s return to the stage, it would be impossible for even a cynic like me to not fall in love with this story, these characters, this music.

Rent, written by the late Jonathan Larson, is loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La bohème. It is set in New York City’s East Village in the late-‘80s, when “Alphabet City” was home to impoverished ethnic families and struggling artists living a bohemian lifestyle. La bohème translates well into late-20th-century America, as Puccini’s opera dealt with struggling artists living a bohemian lifestyle in early-19th-century Paris (and in which one of the main characters is also living with a fatal illness). Rent follows Mark Cohen, a Jewish filmmaker, as he documents the lives of him and his friends over one year. They fall in and out of love and fight to keep their autonomy as free-wheeling artists and their dignity as underprivileged, socially scorned, and (in some cases) terminally ill citizens. The cast is a multicultural cross-section of the pre-gentrified East Village: black, white, Latino/a, Jewish, gay, straight, rich, poor, drug-addicted, sexually uninhibited, with and without AIDS. There is a great deal of complexity built into these characters’ backgrounds and in their interactions; the story tackles issues of prejudice, poverty, illness, discrimination, temptation, and class struggles, but at its very core, it is a love story.

I caught opening night at the Ringwald, which was introduced by a very gracious and sincere Joe Bailey, whom I absolutely adore (seeing him perform in a leading comedic role should be on a list somewhere of Top 100 Things Every Detroiter Must Do). It was almost a full house that evening…which isn’t difficult, considering how tiny the theatre is.

But this is exactly what made this experience of Rent so much more enjoyable: it felt like Rent the way Rent was meant to be seen. Personal, intimate, almost as if the audience was part of the action itself. The stage and props were simple; most of it could probably be found at a yard sale or a junk yard (I speak here specifically of the plastic wrap and wire fencing suspended above the stage, meant to give more of a sense of a squatter’s domain). There was simply nothing inherently over-the-top “Broadway” about this production: this was Rent DIY-style, and it worked.

The actors needed no microphones, as the space itself is probably only about 500 square feet (sometimes their voices project too loudly, but only as a result of such close proximity). They walk amongst the audience and are never more than a few feet away (close enough to see their sweat under those hot lights). The audience thus becomes much more intimately involved in the show—much moreso than they would, say, sitting in the back half of the upper balcony at the Fox…or the Nederlander Theatre in Times Square.

The cast varied from competent to outstanding. It was unfortunate that some members of the ensemble cast were stronger singers than a few of the leads, though by looking at each of the ensemble members there really were no leading roles appropriate for them to play. Ashlee Armstrong had a wonderful voice but a baby’s face; the program states that she is fresh out of college though I suspect she might have been on an accelerated program, one of those child prodigies that have a Bachelor’s degree by the time they’re 17. Others just didn’t quite have the right “look,” like Richard Payton who, God bless him, couldn’t pass for a vicious drug dealer or an angry nightstick-wielding officer for all the Prada shoes in the world. However, the fact that the supporting cast was as strong (if not stronger) than some of the leads is far more desirable than having a hodgepodge of second-rate second-stringers, and because of this the cast is far stronger as a group than they are individually.

Joanne (Shondra Tipler) is magnificent, and it is unfortunate she does not have more opportunity to showcase her stupendous pipes solo. Collins (Dez Walker) starts out a little too understated but soon finds his form as a soulful lead. Leads Mimi (Christine Chemello), Mark (Patrick Kilbourn), and Roger (PJ Vasquez) are all at times shaky, their voices sounding a little unsure. This could easily be attributed to it being opening night, but would also mean certain death on Broadway.

Thank God this isn’t Broadway.

Jitters or no, it was obvious that these actors were not only wholly invested in their roles, but also that they were having a tremendous amount of fun onstage. The ad-libs and witty one-line improvisations uttered by Angel and Mark are brilliantly quirky and fun.  But the moment of absolute joie de vivre came with the full cast’s performance of “La Vie Boheme,” which succeeded in having more spirit, more sass, and more vie than the much poppier, much more polite Broadway version (the interplay between Angel and Maureen is worth seeing repeatedly). The smiles at the end of this wildly energetic performance could not be contained, neither by the actors nor by the audience.

He Just Doesn't Look the Same Without the Make-Up and Heels: Vince Kelly as Angel

He Just Doesn't Look the Same Without the Make-Up and Heels: Vince Kelley as Angel

Ask any Rent-head and they’ll happily tell you who their favorite characters are and why; odds are pretty good that one will be either Angel or Maureen. Maureen, the character who doesn’t even appear until nearly halfway through the play (though her presence is felt much earlier on with the playful and instantly memorable duet between Joanne and Mark, Tango: Maureen), and Angel, the character who does exactly what the very best stage performers know to do: always leave them wanting more. Inside the Ringwald Theatre, Angel (the silky-voiced Vince Kelley) and Maureen (played as more slapstick and less self-serious by Annie Reinholz) were the unmatched show-stealers. Their voices, their energy, their presence eclipsed the other performers onstage. Kelley and Reinholz were the perfect performers for these larger-than-life roles, transforming these characters into the explosive personalities they are meant to be. There is no denying that Angel is pure magic and Maureen is a powerhouse; it was thrilling to see these two stars shine as brightly as they did.

Rent’s tremendous popularity is due in large part to the fact that it is about regular people with real problems in contemporary society, problems that almost any theatre-goer can relate to, whether it be feeling as if you’re nothing more than an observer of life, feeling a reluctant temptation to “sell out,” or desperately wanting to be loved as you are. The heartbreak, the humor, the honest emotions—this is why Rent is so well able to connect with so many audience members. The folks at Who Wants Cake? nailed it with this production.

The WWC? production is less poppy, more gritty, more rough-around-the-edges, more intimate, more real than its immensely more polished Manhattan counterpart, and it bursts with the kind of frenetic energy that perfectly suits this ragtag group of carpe diem against-the-odds artists. Maybe it’s because that same spirit of hope in the face of despair, of creation over desolation, is still alive here in Detroit, whereas in Alphabet City that spirit was long ago replaced by $774/sq.ft. studio-sized co-ops, while a few subway stops away an older, pre-gentrified version of the area was being presented onstage to 1,200 people nightly who each paid $85+/seat. Somehow, it’s just different. Here in Detroit, in the 85-seat Ringwald Theatre in the bohemian-inspired suburb of Ferndale, Rent takes on a whole new meaning, a whole new energy. And I loved every minute of it.

RENT plays now through Monday, September 28th. Performances times are 8PM Friday, Saturday, and Monday nights with the Sunday matinees beginning at 3PM. Tickets for RENT are $25.00 for Fridays and Saturday performances, $20.00 for Sunday matinees and Mondays are still only $10 a ticket! Reservations may be made by phone at 248-545-5545 or online at www.WhoWantsCakeTheatre.com. The box office opens 30 minutes before performances.