This month, Baldwin-Wallace College is mounting concurrent productions of Giacomo Puccini's tragic opera, La Bohème, and Jonathon Larson's Broadway musical inspired by it, Rent. This is the first time these two works have been done in repertory together. Anywhere. Ever. The historical nature of this undertaking is not lost on the publicity people at B-W — it's plastered all over the posters, and mentioned in all the ads; by Wednesday evening, an enterprising netizen had edited the Wikipedia page on La Bohème to make mention of this production. Still, if any institution could pull this off, B-W — possessing both a fine conservatory of music and a strong theater department, staffed by Cleveland theater powerhouse Victoria Bussert — would be the one. Therefore, it was eager anticipation that we attended the opening nights of both shows, this past week.
Puccini composed La Bohème in 1896, basing it on Henri Murger's Scènes de la Vie Bohème, a collection of semi-autobiographical vignettes published in 1851. It tells the story of a circle of artists, writers, and musicians living in poverty in Paris's Left Bank neighborhood, falling in love, and struggling with the (then) terminal disease tuberculosis. In 1996, Jonathon Larson updated the story to late 20th century New York (the East Village), tweaking some of the characters' professions, gender, and sexuality, to make it more relevant to a contemporary audience. Most importantly, he changed the disease with which the characters live to the (currently still) terminal AIDS.
We heard the performance of Rent on Tuesday night, and Bohème on Wednesday, but let's start with Bohème. (Both Rent and Bohème are rotating two casts of some — but not all — of the principals, listed in the program as the "Mark" and "Roger" casts, and the "Mimi" and "Rodolpho" casts, respectively, but unhelpfully the program doesn't make it clear which cast one is hearing on any given night. We had to ask.) For this production of Bohème, Ms. Bussert brought back two B-W alums, tenor James Dickason and baritone Jared Leal, singing the roles of Rodolpho and Marcello, respectively, in all performances. This was a good move: they both sing with a smoothness of voice and a comfort of stage presence which comes from age and experience, but are still young enough to look convincing next to undergraduates. As Mimi, Adrianna Cleveland sang with fine vocal tone and nuance, but lacked force in the first half — a force which she seemed to find after intermission. Alessandra Gabbianelli was not entirely convincing as the singer/courtesan Musetta, although her bizarre copper-red "Orphan Annie" wig didn't help. Among themselves, these four had a well-developed sense of ensemble: their quartet at the end of Act III was an exquisite example of the layered verismo texture Puccini wrote so well.
In the role of Schaunard, Alec Donaldson sang with a bartione voice that was very pretty, but sounded young — a condition that's sure to change with time. As Colline, bass Jonathan Cooper did a good job with his semi-comic scene in Act IV, as he sings farewell to his beloved greatcoat, which he pawns to buy medicine for the ailing Mimi. (We'll see that coat again, some sixty years later, being hawked on a sidewalk in the East Village.) The opera was sung in English, in a translation less clumsy than many, and without supertitles (surprising, given the over-all professionalism of the staging), but the singers' uniformly clear diction guaranteed understanding.
The thirty-eight member orchestra was led by guest conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, who kept tempi on the brisk side. Not surprising: he was the conductor of the Broadway production by Baz Luhrmann, a director known for the frenetic pace of his shows. Balance was good, both among the orchestra and with the singers, but intonation among the strings was sometimes questionable.
Tuesday evening's performance of Rent was, well, louder —much louder — but no less successful. Without exception, the cast acted and sang with a youthful vigor that bespoke complete involvement with the show's subject. Ciara Renée's Mimi was sultry and sexy, and played well against Kyle Szen's Roger: physically the two looked good together, his blondness contrasting with her dark beauty. Their Act I duet "Light My Candle" — a clever reworking of Rodolpho and Mimi's scene in Bohème — was a joy to experience. A remarkably solid performer, Jude McCormick was delightfully neurotic as the film director Mark; and as the performance-artist Maureen, Kaci Scott had the whole audience laughing (and mooing like cows) in her show-stopper scene "We're Okay."
The roles of Angel Schunard and Tom Collins are much larger and more developed than their Puccini models, and special mention should be made of Antwaun Holley and Jason Samuel, who sang them, respectively. As Angel, Mr. Holley imbued the role with that blend of hilarity ("Today 4 U") and pathos that is particular to a Drag Queen; and Mr. Samuel sang both his big numbers, "Santa Fe" and the poignant Act II reprise of "I'll Cover You," in a velvety baritone. Both these actors are in all performances of Rent; indeed, Mr. Samuel is also in the chorus of Bohème, which adds up to a total of sixteen performances in two weeks. By the end of the month, Mr. Samuel will be one tired puppy.
The musical direction of Rent was in the hands of keyboardist Ryan Fielding Garrett, still a junior at B-W, who also led the five-piece "orchestra" — David McHenry and Kevin Johnson, guitars; Ben Meadors, bass; and Dane Palmer, drums. They were, of course, amplified — as was the entire cast, with professional wireless headsets mics. The ensemble of Rent, some thirty-five persons in number, was uniformly strong, singing with precision and dancing with energy — a full-ensemble number such as the Act II opener "Seasons of Love" was impressive in that there appeared to be no weak links throughout the cast.
Production values at Baldwin-Wallace approach professional levels. As a director, Ms. Bussart has extensive experience and connections, not only in Academia but also in professional theater, and for these shows she draws on them. The set, designed by Jeff Herrmann (who chairs the theatre department at B-W), served for both productions: a symmetrical, three-tiered affair of airy staircases and catwalks creating an arch, it resembled the gatehouse of a castle with turrets and portcullis. It was decorated with architectural details for Bohème, stripped to industrial bareness for Rent. (In Rent, the proscenium curtains were even replaced with black vinyl tarps, tied back with yellow "Do Not Cross" police ribbon.) Ms. Bussert's decision to set Bohème in the 1930's was also a wise move: Art Nouveau detailing and costumes say "chic Paris" to a contemporary American audience more readily than 19th c. European style might.
These productions nearly demand that one make a comparison between the two works. (The program, which serves for both shows, runs in parallel columns down the pages.) Of the two, Puccini's work is perhaps the dramatically focused: his verismo style has a directness of emotional thrust which Rent, with its sub-plots and social commentary, waters down. Although only fifteen years old, Rent is also — somewhat surprisingly — starting to become a period piece. A number like "La Vie Bohème," the infectious Act I finale — basically a patter-song of counter-cultural memes ("to heuvos rancheros and curry vindaloo, to Sontag, to Sondheim, to Maya Angelou") — is destined to become irrelevant, or worse, mainstream. But primarily what seems dated is the attitude towards AIDS: the disease is no more curable, no less terminal than it was in 1996, but advances in medicine and better drug regimens have made it no longer necessarily a "death sentence." (As an HIV+ friend of ours put it, "we are in the Third Age of AIDS.") As references to "AZT breaks" become less understood by younger audiences, only time will tell whether Rent becomes what Bohème is: a classic.