“Seasons of Love” is a hard-driving song that opens Act 2 of “Rent.” The ensemble presenting the prize-winning rock opera now playing at the Durango Arts Center makes it a riveting, high-energy anthem. The idea is that we’re all living on borrowed time.
If you’ve never seen “Rent,” see it now. If you’ve seen another stage production or the 2005 film, see the DAC show now.
In terms of style and story, “Rent” is a seminal work in the history of American theater. When “Rent” opened on Broadway in 1996, it won every award in sight and ran for more than 5,000 performances. It’s a through-sung rock opera, and Jonathan Larson’s score explores many musical forms—be-bop, reggae, salsa, even an old-fashioned tango. It also has spoken-sung sections that ultimately derive from German singspiel. In short, this is a sophisticated work with solid musical credentials which happens to capture the voice of a generation.
Now, almost 20 years after it opened, some consider “Rent” a period piece – mostly because it takes place at the height of the AIDS crisis in the ’80’s-’90s. The crisis has passed, but a tragic sense of living on the edge – of disaster, disease, and ultimately death – lingers.
And then, too, there’s the Puccini connection. Loosely based on “La Bohème,” the ur-Romantic opera of its time, the story centers on aspiring artists who live on the cheap, work and play hard, and are forced to confront the possibility of early death. While struggling to write, paint, compose, and generally live for art, Puccini’s Parisian creatives faced certain death from tuberculosis.
In the late 20th century, composer Larson envisioned his American characters renting a freezing New York loft in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. Compromised also by poverty, street crime and drugs, his characters confront the reality of living in and on borrowed time. “Seasons of Love” posits the question: How do you measure even one year of your life’s time? Ironically, Larson suddenly died of an undiagnosed heart ailment a few weeks before the opening of “Rent.”
The contemporary, character-driven story roughly parallels “Bohème.” The poet Rodolfo now is Roger Davis, an aspiring songwriter. At DAC, he’s brilliantly played by the professional singer/songwriter Dave Mensch, who brings an uncanny intensity and beautiful singing voice to the part. Mimi, Puccini’s frail seamstress, has been transformed into Mimi Marquez, a seductive sex kitten, sinuously played by the equally-talented Kristen Brewer Sitter.
The opera’s famous candle scene gets a makeover with interesting twists. And it sets the stage for future disagreements and reconciliations, right up to the surprising ending.
Director Theresa Carson has recruited a talented, if somewhat uneven, cast. Everyone deserves mention, including the chorus members who play multiple roles.
In terms of structure, the seasons pass, a year goes by, and holidays are noted with ironic repetitions plus phone calls from worried mothers. Cast members quickly change costumes, props or furniture to fluidly signal time shifts.
Eric Bulrice’s smart, rough set exploits DAC’s natural stage features. Bare light bulbs, brick walls, steps and chain-link fencing underscore the look of the show. John Mark Zink’s sophisticated lighting enhances, hides or highlights where it should. Music Director Paula Millar champions a small on-stage band that contrasts tellingly with Mensch’s solo guitar for a complex sound texture.
Director Carson knows when to slow down and simplify and when to marshal and intensify. She doesn’t overplay the power of a lineup at the edge of the stage. In a very complicated café scene, she’s aided immensely by Suzy DiSanto’s devilish choreography.
The only misstep is a distracting video of outtakes shown alongside the final tableau. It has an organic connection to the plot, but audience members seemed confused about which to watch. I chose the live players surrounding Roger and Mimi, singing their passionate commitment to seize this day.
“Rent” runs two and a half hours with one 15-minute intermission. For mature audiences only.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, art historian and arts journalist.