This Ain’t Boheme

La Boheme has never been one of my favorite operas.

It’s melodramatic, much like most operas, and the plot is way too thin. Sure, it has its moments. Last time the SF Opera did Puccini’s opus, my parents and my sisters were glued to their seats while most of act one I enjoyed a Mojito at the lounge, occasionally slipping my way through the mezzanine to catch a glimpse of, oh, maybe Musetta’s Waltz or Ehi! Rodolfo!

La Boheme, as a dramatic piece apart from theatrics, doesn’t work. Or maybe it just takes too much effort to participate and enjoy.

This is the inherent problem of Rent, the musical/rock opera that’s now an uneven film by Chris Columbus. The basis material isn’t all that strong to begin with. Many would probably throw tomatoes at me but let’s face it; we’ve been serenaded by Puccini’s majestic compositions.

 

 

Rent, much like its inspiration, relies on the theatrics—heavily. It’s melodramatic and operatic on purpose, broad in movement and large on notes. When I performed the piece as Roger (Adam Pascal), the music and the vocal arrangements were heavy undertakings—and that’s for all the performers involved in the show.

Rent works best with a live audience cheering the piece on. On film, it has the sad distinction of sounding like one man clapping.

The weakness of the film lies in a director with no musical knowledge. As much as I’ve had the pleasure to meet the man, and be so involved in Rent and all it encompasses, Columbus was the wrong guy to do the film version. The original choice for director, Spike Lee would have made the film an event equivalent to its stage counterpart.

 

The performances aren’t the problem. All the original cast members sing, act, and dance the roles they’ve perfected to a higher level of greatness and Traci Thoms as Joanne shows she has what it takes to be with the originals. The weak spot in the cast is Rosario Dawson, who just isn’t as meaningful enough for me as Mimi. Mimi should have spunk but also be a genuine spirit. That character is the heart of the piece and sadly, she just doesn’t fit the role. When she sings to Roger that there is ‘no day but today,’ it isn’t a plea, it’s a prayer—to hang on to what we have, and to cherish those we love. Dawson’s Mimi makes it seem like any other day, when the whole point of the song is the exact opposite.

Understand that I’m trying to be as fair as possible with this review, considering I’ve seen the original cast, did the show, and was involved in the film version (even though it sure doesn’t seem like it after seeing the final cut).

Rent, by Jonathan Larson was and is an unfinished product. The charm of the piece came from its rough and frayed edges. To fine-tune it to film almost zaps the life out of it. A majority of the second act was rushed and cut out of the movie making the resolution so muddled. This was the biggest mistake Columbus did with the film—he tinkered with the course of the piece way too much to alter it, yet he kept the numbers much the way they are. Songs that shouldn’t have been cut were cut, and songs that could have been shaved a verse here and there were kept in tact.

 

Yet this also contributed to the success of the film. For the most part, he kept most of the songs and their arrangements in tact, and the songs have never sounded so glorious. The opening number, with all the tenants burning their rent agreements while belting out ‘we’re not going to pay rent’ brought me back to the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway and much of the Life Support scenes we’re translated so damn well on to the screen that I have to give Columbus credit for that.

 

 

Yet the best moment of the film in my opinion came from Collins (the always awesome Jesse L. Martin from Law & Order) as he heartbreakingly sings the “I’ll Cover You Reprise” with such gusto and honesty to Angel’s (Wilson Jermaine Heredia who won a Tony as Angel) coffin. I have to admit that this cinematic moment stood out from its theatrical rendition. On stage, it’s an exortation, on film it’s a cry for longing and it just brings into full circle the true theme of the piece, from Puccini’s to Jonathan Larson’s imperfect masterpiece—live life in love—amidst death and disease.

But maybe that is the true problem with the piece itself. Or maybe the film is ten years too late, considering we live in a society numbed by its surroundings. Ironically, that’s what the film—the musical tells us not to do—to numb ourselves from the harsh reality.

AIDS is still a problem, not just in Africa.

Tolerance is still an issue.

But we’ve become the very opposite of bohemia with our lattes and our weblogs. So maybe, Benny (Taye Diggs) was right.

Bohemia is dead.

Or coud it be that the message of Rent is too simple for a larger audience, much less a cynical and sarcastic society? Can we truly measure our life in love? Or maybe its too idealistic? Do we as an audience lack any kind of joie de vivre from such testaments to simple ideas? It couldn’t be that the piece is dated because the show is still going strong in New York.

But that’s New York. The show is very much about them. And let’s face it, they seem to be in tune to a lot of things over there.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the key to Rent, or even La Boheme for that matter, isn’t in the piece itself.

It is in our willingness to participate–wholeheartedly–in art that dares to challenge us.

Perhaps next time I see La Boheme at the Opera, I should hold off on that Mojito.

 

RATING: C+

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2 thoughts on “This Ain’t Boheme”

  1. i’ve been eagerly awaiting your opinion, it was quite an excellent review my friend.  i agree wholeheartedly with much that you say, esp. with cutting the “good-bye love” scene, thus eliminating any substance to mark’s character.  as you know, i’ve also been there since the beginning, with the original cast, and seen it countless times since 1996 (i didn’t know you played roger!!!!). 
    i left the theater near central park west the night before thanksgiving not really knowing what to feel.  maybe it was the lame upper west side crowd  with whom i viewed the movie (i’m sure a viewing in the lower east side would’ve been raucous), all of whom were too uptight to even applaud at the end of a song or to even sing along to any of the songs…or maybe it was the raw quality that rosario dawson lacked in her role as mimi…or maybe you’re right when you say that bohemia is dead – but there was that certain “umpf” that was missing, something that didn’t punctuate the movie with an exclamation point the same way the theatrical version did. 
    maybe spike lee could have re-done the film in a way that revitalized its theatrical counterpart.  and although you and I may complain and criticize certain aspects of the film, in the end, the central theme was still evident – that we should live our lives in and with love – and as idealistic as that sounds, it’s an ideal that i try to hold on to so desperately in a world that doesn’t know how to feel…and continues to numbly sip on their mocha lattes and post weblogs.  it’s been 10 years since i came to the conclusion that I don’t really need to live a bohemian lifestyle to measure myself in love and hopefully i’ve since lived my life by the standard that Jonathan Larson exemplifies in his music.

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