Growing up, my older sister Krissy used to play the “Rent” soundtrack on a regular basis, and I was puzzled by the sing-song answering machine messages and the occasional breakage from song into outright moo-ing. This made “Rent” my first indication that contemporary theater could combine experimental structures with controversial social issues. Naturally I had to see our home-grown version at The Lab Theater, especially after I heard it was starring local SotaRican hip-hop artist Maria Isa.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s parodied “Rent” in “Team America: World Police,” by changing the lyrics of the central song “Rent” to “Everyone has AIDS” — and that’s not far off; about half of the characters have the disease or are HIV positive. “Rent” is in part a tribute to Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme,” from an era where tuberculosis was the disease to fear.
The central characters are Mark and Roger, who struggle with their old friend and sudden landlord Benny’s demands that the characters pay rent despite their lack of funds. Benny agrees to let their debt go if they stub out an impending protest by a town of squatters in the parking lot he plans to demolish and replace with a cyber studio. Roger, who recently found out he’s dying of AIDS, finds little intrigue in the drama or in Isa’s amorous character Mimi. Meanwhile, their drag queen friend Angel’s AIDS has accelerated to a fatal degree.
The Lab Theater’s setting features a model house façade that periodically opens up to display an ensemble orchestra or to become a makeshift café where the city-dwelling boho characters can cause a ruckus. Other than that, a series of bars and moving carts made up the rest of the scene, forcing the characters to double as pole dancers and playground climbers. Between all that singing and swinging, it’s amazing anyone’s vocal chords could stay intact.
Occasionally vocals did go kaput (like Isa’s on “Out Tonight”) but the cast of local music stalwarts primarily impressed. Isa’s charmingly raspy voice hit lower notes best, and her translation from hip-hop to theater beauty promises more opportunities for her in the future. Fellow star Harley Wood, of local band Far From Falling, contributed live guitar performance along with steady vocals and Kinaundrae Lee, a grad of McNally Smith, stunned in Angel’s shifting wardrobe of knee-high boots and colorful tights.
Many of the actors in this production have been in Disney’s High School Musical, which implies their acting can cover the entire range of subject matter, from high school squabbles to life and death scenarios. To check out more music made by the cast, click one of these links: