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RENT at Shea’s gets a mixed reaction, most love it, but many don’t

THE BASICS:  RENT, the 20th anniversary tour production of the Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway musical with music, lyrics, and book all by Jonathan Larson presented by Shea’s and Albert Nocciolino opened on March 26 and runs through March 31, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8, Saturday at 2 and 8, Sunday at 2 and 7 on the main stage of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main Street (1-800-745-3000). www.sheas.org Runtime: Two hours and 45 minutes

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: RENT is a rock musical set during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Lower Manhattan’s East Village (known as “Alphabet City” along Avenues A,B,C,D south of 14th north of Houston) in which a group of impoverished young artists struggles to maintain their friendships and their bohemian lifestyle without being intimidated or selling out. Based loosely on the Puccini opera “La Boheme” the same eight principals are brought forward to represent 20th century bohemians and their concerns. For example “Mimi” (same name in both) in the opera had tuberculosis but in RENT has HIV/AIDS and shows up needing to relight her candle but it’s so that she can cook her heroin. That’s how she meets “Roger” the songwriter (“Rodolfo” the poet in the opera) whose roommate is “Mark” the filmmaker (“Marcello” the painter in the opera) who has an on-again, off-again relationship with “Maureen” (think “Musetta”) who has been reinvented as a bisexual performance artist who is the new girlfriend of “Joanne” the lawyers.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: RENT is one of only nine musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a list that includes A CHORUS LINE, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, and HAMILTON to name a few. And, in 1996, RENT won four Tonys, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical, all three by Jonathan Larson. So, as you can see, this show had something special to say over 20 years ago, as Americans finally understood, more or less, what HIV/AIDS was and what it wasn’t. But many of the aspects of the LGBTQ world that would have been titillating to the general theater audience over 20 years ago are now part of the public consciousness.  For example, as of a 2015 Supreme Court decision (Obergefell v. Hodges) same-sex marriage equality and equal rights protection is now federally mandated, and while Buffalo’s first Pride Parade was held in 1993, it’s been around for 25 years now.

And there were other parts that seemed dated, for example listening to answering machines was funny in the 90s. Now, and especially since the “phone voice” wasn’t very well handled in this production, it just seemed okay. And poor Maureen’s “performance art” which was acceptable as it poked fun at a contemporary issue back then, today was just as annoying as any performance art is or was.

And, the cast was young. Looking at their bios, many of the performers didn’t have a lot of shows to their credit. Having said that, one knockout role was “Angel” and that was danced and sung at the highest level. If you only went to see that performance, you would feel good.

Reactions around me were mixed. Several people were bored. There were, on the other hand, huge claques of people who I imagine had been in a high school or college production of RENT and were reliving the magic of their youth. In that way, it reminded me of CATS, which I believe appeals mostly to those who were (and there are thousands of them) in CATS themselves at some point.

Lead image: Courtesy Shea’s Performing Arts Center

UP NEXT: Look for FUN HOME presented by Musicalfare at Shea’s 710 Theatre and then DEAR EVAN HANSEN on the main stage.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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