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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Tympanium gives ‘Rent’ new lease on life

Published: March 25, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

Photo by Ingrid Schulte/the Hoot

Tympanium Euphorium took on the wildly popular musical “Rent” in a joyful and energetic production that celebrated the high and low points of the bohemian lifestyle. Featuring powerful solos and impressive character acting, “Rent” was one of the most polished shows I’ve seen at Brandeis thus far.

“Rent” is about a group of artists struggling to live in NYC; it tackles heavy issues from AIDS to homelessness, but also features moments of hilarity. One of the reasons that “Rent” is so appealing to young audiences is because the characters’ hopes and fears reflect our own. Will we get lost in the crowd when we live in a big city? Will we give up our dreams for cash? Will we love? Will we cheat? Will we be loyal to our friends? All of these questions make “Rent” significant for those (especially seniors) contemplating life after college.

What makes “Rent” most fascinating is its vibrant cast of characters, which the Tymphanium Euphorium production makes the most of through their nearly spot-on casting choices. Jason Dick ’14’s take on Angel, the drag queen with a quirky sense of humor and a generous soul (she croons “Today for you and tomorrow for me”), is a sensitive and engaging one. There is no irony in his performance; he makes Angel into a real, hopeful person. Darlene Zephyrine ’12 as Joanne, a strong woman trying to cope with the wayward eyes of her life, is smart and passionate. It’s clear to everyone that she knows that Maureen (Zoey Hart ’13) is bad for her, but it’s equally clear that she’s in love with her as Zephyrine softens her facial expressions whenever Maureen enters the room.

Acting paired with superb singing was another high note for the production. Dotan Horowitz ’12 and Harrison Bannett ’11 as the roommates and fellow starving artists Roger and Mark had such good chemistry that it was easy to believe that they were best friends. In each of their duets they harmonized almost frighteningly well; “What You Own” in the second act was an especially powerful performance. Their harmonizing combined with their natural chemistry made any scene featuring the two actors together a pleasure to watch. Horowitz’s rock-and-roll tinged solos were also among the strongest of the night; his “One Song Glory” beautifully displayed his range.

Ellyn Getz ’13 gave a great performance as Mimi, a wild-child with a crippling addiction to drugs. Getz provides her edginess with a streak of vulnerability. Yet sometimes Getz’s acting interfered with the quality of the song. In “Out Tonight,” she gives the song a rough quality perfectly in line with her character, though perhaps at the sacrifice of fully exhibiting her vocal range. During “Goodbye Love,” Getz sobbed in a convincing display of grief, but at the cost of breaking up the flow of the song.

Similarly, Robert Orzalli ’11 played a convincingly laid-back Collins, but seemed to struggle with the vocals at times. His duet “Cover You” with Zephyrine was somewhat disappointing as the two singers couldn’t seem to harmonize.

The ensemble songs were excellent. The familiar “Seasons of Love” was made fresh with superb male and female soloists from the company. “Another Day” was so good that I felt chills. It highlighted one of the triumphs of “Rent” which is to seamlessly interweave two narratives: Mimi trying to convince Roger to go out with her and enjoy himself, and a HIV group meeting and talking about their struggles.

This was, in part, due to the set-up of the stage. Roger and Mark’s apartment is raised in the left corner of the stage, a small cramped space. The rest of the stage is left open for the company, the inhabitants of the city, to walk around. The stage emphasized one of the play’s strongest themes, the existence of an individual story within the life of a community. Roger’s struggle to enjoy life in spite of his disease echoes those of the support group. His apartment represents his self-imposed isolation from the community and simultaneously shows that his personal struggle is part of a larger narrative of a problem impacting a group of people. “Rent” is preoccupied with exploring an individual’s relationship with a community. The musical is constantly questioning: in a large city, how much do you owe to your landlords, your neighbors, your friends and your fellow bohemians?

Of course, the show wasn’t perfect, but the flaws were few. Sometimes the orchestra played too loudly and overwhelmed the singers’ voices, and Mark and Roger’s apartment sometimes made it hard to see what was going on, especially towards the end.

Putting on a show that has been extremely popular and has the cultural importance of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” is both a benefit and a challenge. Since “Rent” is a fairly well-known musical, it was probably name recognition that brought many people to the door (and many people came; I was at the third sold-out show), but it was talent that made them stay.

The challenge of putting on “Rent” is that it has become a phenomenon. Many people love the show. The challenge is that this love then creates pressure to produce the show in a certain way, which could stifle a production’s creativity.

This was clearly on the director’s mind. Andrew Litwin ’11 wrote in the show’s program that his music director said “there is ‘Rent’ the phenomenon and ‘Rent’ the show.” Litwin’s goal was to (as he puts it) “bring you ‘Rent’ the show.” There is the risk of losing some creative control over the direction of the production.

Did Tymphanium Euphorium’s “Rent” succeed in being the show and not the phenomenon? I’m not entirely sure. It was entertaining. It was an impressive display of talent. The director, producer, cast and production staff should be proud of pulling off one of the most enjoyable shows at Brandeis. Yet the original “Rent” casts a long shadow and one can’t help comparing the two.