Good grief! When is it too soon to revive a legendary cash cow musical? A musical whose composer and lyricist died suddenly at the age of 35 the night before it was to open in 1996. A musical that won the Pulitzer Prize. A musical that won the Tony for Best Musical and various Drama Desk Awards that very same year and ran for twelve more before vacating in September of 2008.
The musical I am referring to is, of course, RENT by Jonathan Larson loosely inspired by La Boheme by Puccini which closed its doors just three years ago and has reopened them at the New World Stages last night.
Can I be the only person in the universe that believes RENT to be an over hyped phenomenon? I had seen RENT when it first appeared at the New York Theatre Workshop. I wondered then what all the excitement was about. I wonder still.
I remember an almost bare stage with some scaffolding. Some tables. A drag queen in a Santa outfit. Some glorious harmonies. Some exciting performances. And a long boring “performance piece” segment by Maureen about a cow. There was a lot going on. The story line was unclear. The music with the exception of a few songs was loud, lackluster and unmemorable.
“Seasons of Love” became a hit. That coupled with Mr. Larson’s untimely death created the RENT mythology and the rest is history.
This new production of RENT directed by Michael Greif with some choreography by Lawrence Keigwin has a much more sophisticated look. Grungy worked better. The two tier monkey bar set enables the actors to climb and perform hanging from the rafters. It houses the band. It reveals many more hi tech video screens. It turns. The extraordinary lighting design is spectacular (Kevin Admas). The sound – especially for the many incoming Voice Mail segments is scratchy (Brian Ronan).
It’s a long haul. Running about two and a half hours. Sitting there I was sometimes elated, sometimes bored but mostly wondering how RENT has fooled so many people. Mostly young people buy the look of the audience. An audience that can pre-order intermission drinks. Tiny drinks with a hefty price tag attached. I didn’t notice anyone checking IDs.
The plot loosely follows that of La Boheme. Artists from the lower East side wondering how to pay the rent while living among the homeless and drug addicts, many of whom are HIV positive and following their dreams to be free and to love one another.
The young, energetic cast is really exceptional. Highest honors go to Adam Chanler-Berat. This is a young man coming into his own as a fine actor and singer. He is relaxed and natural and one can really care for him as Mark Cohen – our video taping chronicler. Roommate Roger (Matt Shingledecker) also delivers. Mimi the sexy dancer infected with Aids is a gyrating dynamo called Arianda Fernandez. When not sizzling she has some beautiful quiet moments with Roger. However her faux death scene is ridiculous as written.
Angel (an excellent MJ Rodriquez) winningly portrays the RuPaul-like drag queen who falls in love with Tom Collins (the majestic Nicholas Christopher). His eulogy scene is breathtaking.
As the two lesbian lovers Joanne (Corbin Reid) and Maureen (Annaleigh Ashford) have a wonderful time with “Take Me or Leave Me”. And I have to admit that I was totally impressed with Ms. Ashford’s “performance piece” – “Over the Moon”. Outstanding. She has the looks the voice and the humor.
I wasn’t a huge fan of RENT to begin with and I am afraid that this production hasn’t changed my opinion of the legendary and extremely popular MTV rock musical.
NOTE: The escalators were not working. They should be.
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