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Rent brings ‘La Vie Boheme’ to Pittsburgh

Two of the original Broadway and movie cast members, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, performed in Pittsburgh last week. (credit: Courtesy of Veronica Corpuz) Two of the original Broadway and movie cast members, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, performed in Pittsburgh last week. (credit: Courtesy of Veronica Corpuz)

Rent is not your average musical, at least not in the sense that the word “musical” typically implies. While there were costumes, the clothes were ones that you would expect to see on someone stuck in the ’90s. The orchestra for the show was placed on the stage for the whole performance, and the main instruments that could be heard throughout the songs were the electric guitar and drums — definitely not typical for a musical score. And yet the energy on stage — and in the audience — was palpable. The cheering frenzy began as soon as the first cast member stepped on stage, before any words were either sung or spoken.

Rent follows the stories of a group of friends whose lives are completely intertwined. There’s Mark (Anthony Rapp), the filmmaker, who is friends with Roger (Adam Pascal), the songwriter and ex-drug addict, who dates Mimi (Lexi Lawson), a dancer and sometimes addict, who dated Benny (Jacques C. Smith), who was friends with Mark and Roger but then married a society woman and bought the land they live on. Maureen, played on Tuesday by understudy Caren Tackett, who used to date Mark, broke up with him to date Joanne (Trisha Jeffrey), a perfectionist lawyer. Collins (Michael McElroy), who is another of Mark and Roger’s friends, is in love with the cross-dressing Angel (Justin Johnston).

The plot of the show, however, was not written to cover the sometimes-superficial stories that musicals tend to follow. Rent was written to discuss real issues — every character in the show is in some way affected by AIDS, and the story follows a year in the lives of these friends to show the impact that the disease can — and does — have. And yet you don’t feel like you’re being preached at. Each and every cast member is into the show as much as the audience is, and you feel like you’re watching snippets of real people’s lives.

The enthusiasm of the cast members is vital to the believability of their characters, and the actors and actresses did not disappoint. Many of them have been in previous productions of Rent — as part of the original Broadway cast and the movie version of the show, like Pascal, Rapp, and Gwen Stewart, who played the bag lady and soloist in “Seasons of Love,” or as part of the replacement Broadway cast — and they were able to effortlessly slip back into their characters. Their passion and emotion was something that couldn’t be faked, and it helped draw the audience into the performance.

“The great thing about touring is that you get to see how much [the show] means to people, and how they value and appreciate it. Seeing how much it means to people makes it an honor,” commented McElroy, a Carnegie Mellon alum.

While there was certainly chemistry among all the cast members, that between Rapp and Pascal could not be ignored. After working together on Rent multiple times, the two seemed completely at ease with each other on stage, simply two friends talking — or singing — to each other. The chemistry was also apparent between McElroy and Johnston. The two acted together flawlessly, showing just the right amount of emotion without making the role cheesy, and also blended together perfectly on their songs.

“[Johnston] was my favorite person to act with, since our storylines had us together the most. We had a great camaraderie,” said McElroy.

The way the stage was set up for the show was something that is not usually seen in musicals, but worked perfectly with the style of the show. The orchestra was completely on the stage, more or less hidden but not in the respect that the audience couldn’t see them. The scenery on stage never changed, and the changing locations and orientation of small props like tables and chairs, along with the moving around that the actors and actresses did, dictated where the scene was taking place — but it worked perfectly for the show, keeping with the bohemian vibe. The music fit with the vibe as well: the more rock-based songs perfectly portray the story. The music flows right into the dialogue without seeming out of place or unnecessary — every song says exactly what it’s supposed to.

While Rent is certainly not a newcomer to the stage, a touring production is always different from a Broadway production or the film version. McElroy, who also performed his role on Broadway, discussed the differences of touring.

“When you’re touring, you get to see lots of the country, and it brings together a great group of people, a culmination of people from many different performances of the show,” he said.

The tour also allowed the audience to see that the show is more than just a show to the cast members — they haven’t forgotten what the show is about, that it is a cause, and not just a story. On Tuesday night, the cast auctioned off the chance to be backstage for a performance of the show, and the proceeds for the auction would be given toward AIDS awareness. In addition, autographed Playbills and posters were on sale after the show, as they were in every city, and proceeds from those sales went to AIDS awareness as well.

Though Rent may not be a traditional musical, there is no questioning that the show was a hit, and that the audience was able to connect to the show and the characters.