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RENT issues a challenge to Slovak musical theatre

IMAGINE YOU'RE a young artist living in New York City in the 1990s, struggling to create and pay your rent at the same time. Outside of your art and your dreams, all you have is a close-knit community of like-minded friends.

RENT

Music and lyrics by: Jonathan Larson, Book: Jonathan Larson, based on the opera La Bohéme, Translated by: Milan Ješko, Directed by: Patrik Lančarič, Musical direction: Mikael Langs, Where: Istropolis Union Hall, Trnavské mýto 1, Bratislava, Next performance: March 14 at 19:00 in Bratislava, check www.muzikalrent.sk for other cities


IMAGINE YOU'RE a young artist living in New York City in the 1990s, struggling to create and pay your rent at the same time. Outside of your art and your dreams, all you have is a close-knit community of like-minded friends. And then, just as you think you might be getting close to writing that one great song or making the next cinematic masterpiece, you find out you have AIDS, and within a year you'll be dead.

That's the set up for RENT, the groundbreaking musical by writer/composer Jonathan Larson that shook up Broadway in 1996, and opened for a limited engagement at the Istropolis Union Hall in Bratislava on March 1.

Set in the midst of the growing AIDS crisis that gripped the United States, especially New York City, throughout the 1980s and mid-90s, RENT portrays a year in the life of a group of friends bonded by their devotion to art, love for each other and common quest to overcome the tragedies of drug addiction and untimely death. But unlike the opera it's based on, La Bohéme by Giacomo Puccini, which ends with a chilling message on the price of living the Bohemian lifestyle, RENT speaks more to the resilience of the human spirit and affirms sacrifice made in the name of passion.

This makes RENT completely different from the all-too-often superficial spectacles Bratislava usually imports. Other differences are its mainly rock-pop ballads and choral numbers; openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered characters; sparse, utilitarian scenery, designed by Ellen Cairns; and practical costumes, by Simona Hülzemanová.

But the greatest triumph is the outstanding cast, which puts on by far the most authentic and thrilling musical theatre experience Bratislava has seen in at least a decade. In fact, as someone who attended the Broadway production of RENT several times, I can say definitively that the Slovak performers keep pace with the originals in terms of sheer talent, energy and devotion.

Dušan Vitázek's velvety upper range and pained expressions were a perfect match for the role of Roger Davis, an HIV-positive musician desperate to write one last meaningful song. Petr Brychta was vocally dynamic and characteristically over-the-top as the transgendered Angel. Michaela Horká's Mimi, a drug addicted stripper, had some vocal and diction problems, but came across as endearingly wacky. And Soňa Jányová was hilarious as the wild street artist Maureen.

The hours the cast members presumably put into rehearsing the dance scenes paid off handsomely. Everyone moved with comfort and grace, and radiated an infectious joy for being onstage. This, plus the live band led by music director Mikael Langs, made moments like the well-known chorus Seasons of Love particularly touching.

But RENT could have made even more of a splash, and it might have, with an inspired promotional campaign leading up to its premiere. Most people I have spoken to still cannot remember having seen any advertising for it, which is probably why the audience was two-thirds empty on March 3, a Saturday night.

The marketing team essentially put the nail in its own coffin by holding its press conference at Café Barbaros, one of Bratislava's gay locales. True, RENT is aimed at young people and has mostly gay characters, but this effectively narrowed its appeal by characterizing it as a "gay musical".

RENT's trump card, just like that of the film Brokeback Mountain, is its universal themes. The goal for the Slovak production should have been not only to entertain, but to remind audiences of all generations that, when it comes to aspirations, friendship, love and even death, there are more similarities between us than differences.

If Slovak audiences fail to respond to these universal themes, their talented performers will continue to find work abroad, where audiences are more receptive to and appreciative of trendsetting productions.


RENT returns to the Istropolis Union Hall for the final performance of its initial run on March 14. For more information, visit www.muzikalrent.sk. For tickets, go to www.ticketportal.sk or call 02/5557-4939.

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