Ocean State Theatre Company’s Rent

Paying their dues
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  March 11, 2013

RENT-3_main
IN HARMONY Hawver and Fox.

It may have been a latecomer as a rock musical, arriving 19 years after Hair rattled the boards in 1967, but Rent is overflowing with everything there is to love about both musicals and high-energy music. The music and lyrics could set the standard for an engaging score and intelligent writing. The adapted story reprises an immortal, emotionally compelling melodrama, and it offers the bonus of being socially meaningful.

So it's especially satisfying that the Ocean State Theatre Company has come up with a first-rate production (through March 10), directed by Amiee Turner. Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, would heartily applaud.

It's based on the Puccini opera La Bohème, which was about some young Parisian Bohemians in 1830 who relieved their hardship with creativity. That much hasn't changed, in life or this adaptation. This story is set in the fertile creative environment of early 1990s New York — when, come to think of it, a few SoHo walk-ups probably harbored a young composer working on a rock musical.

Our narrator is Mark Cohen (Dan McInerney), a struggling documentary filmmaker, whose struggling songwriter roommate is Roger Davis (Nile Hawver). It's winter and they are squatting and shivering in an abandoned loft space that has no heat or electricity. Their landlord, Benjamin Coffin III (Din Griffin), is a former roommate who married well enough to buy the building they're living in. These days friendship means less than money, so he's threatening to evict them for not paying rent. He's also pushing to get rid of everybody in a homeless encampment in his empty lot next door so he can build on his properties.

Characters and their stories overlap. Legal aid lawyer Joanne Jefferson (Kendra Payne) wants to organize a protest to support the homeless (if they can stop Joanne, Mark and Roger are offered free rent by landlord Benjamin, the creep). Joanne recently has become the lover of Roger's now ex-girlfriend Maureen Johnson (Janet McWilliams), who has just discovered the wonders of lesbianism.

Down the hall is potential love interest Mimi Márquez (Nora Fox), who knocks on their door to ask for a match. Her song "Light My Candle" couldn't be more obvious in its double meaning, but Roger remains cold to the flirtation, self-conscious about being HIV-positive.

Out on the street, their gay college professor friend Tom Collins (Damron Russel Armstrong) has been mugged. Discovered and taken care of by drag queen Angel (Antonio Tillman), he falls in love with her gentle flamboyance.

Rare among musicals, Rent's nearly three dozen songs have nary a flabby one among them (OK, maybe "On the Street"). To establish the general spirit, the opening title song goes from "How we gonna pay? How we gonna pay?" to "We're not gonna pay! We're not gonna pay!" (with no apologies to Dario Fo). At the end of Act I, we get the rousing "La Vie Boheme," and were tempted to quit our day jobs and live the life of creative poverty ourselves. In between those songs are some equally memorable ones, such as the sweet declaration "I'll Cover You" by Angel and Collins. In a droll highpoint of the show, McWilliams does a great job presenting Maureen's eye-roller of a performance art piece, making something terrible wonderful.

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