Director Ward's risky staging of the musical 'Rent' pays off

Published on Thursday, 29 August 2013 22:24 - Written by By Stewart Smith

“Rent,” as performed by the cast at APEX Theatre 20, is an exercise in sheer determination.

If you’ve never been in the performance space for Theatre 20, it’s barely larger than your average school classroom. Longer than it is narrow, it seats 50 on a good day (depending on the configuration of the stage per the production’s needs) and isn’t really conducive for a musical the size of “Rent.”

No one told that to director Michael Ward and his cast and chorus of 20 actors, though. They did it anyway.

With a runway extending the stage almost the full length of the room (and splitting the seating down the middle and against the walls) and the chorus seated and functioning closer to a choir, Ward and his team have basically thumbed their collective nose at whatever obstacles others might have spat out as too restrictive. The result is a production that, while not perfect, succeeds, thanks entirely to the tenacity of its actors and actually benefits from its sparse, rough-around-the-edges feel.

“Rent” tells the story of a group of impoverished New Yorkers as they struggle to survive and make their way in the heyday of the Bohemian Alphabet City and as the HIV/AIDS epidemic looms like a shadow. It’s a cross-section of people from nearly every walk of life, each looking for a purpose or stability or love and acceptance.

The production may be stylized with wall-to-wall musical numbers, but the very human heart that beats throughout still shines as brightly as ever. You may not personally know any struggling documentary filmmakers or HIV-positive strippers, but their plight is no less recognizable and heartbreaking.

This isn’t the full Broadway version of “Rent,” though. It’s closer to a concert style of performance, which was apparently the format the show’s creator, the late Jonathan Anderson, preferred.

The result is a show that feels operatic in its own way, but due to the cramped space and stripped down production ends up having the raw feel of an underground concert.

The performances are uniformly solid with passion and tenacity filling in whatever shortcomings arise (albeit sparsely) in terms of vocal prowess from the principal cast.

More than anything, though, the production of “Rent” is proof that if you want to do something around Tyler, at least in terms of arts and entertainment, just do it. Don’t overthink it, just put it out there and see what happens. I guarantee you Michael Ward never asked someone if they thought putting on a show like “Rent” in what amounts to a glorified basement was a “good idea.” He just did it. And the results were pretty good.

Ward took a risk, but it seems also to have paid off, seeing as how all three nights of the show sold out weeks before opening night and all with zero advertising.

Clearly there’s a bubbling desire (or even a need, I’d venture to say) for material of this sort that ventures beyond the entirely mainstream fare found at the majority of venues around here.

If you weren’t able to get tickets to this string of performances, fear not, as plans are apparently underway for an encore performance later in the year.