OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: RENT
“How did we get here?” wonders Mark Cohen, the conflicted filmmaker at the heart of Jonathan Larson’s landmark rock opera. It’s a good question, and one many of us have been asking ourselves since Rent began previews at New World Stages in July. Broadway’s seventh longest-running show has been reduced, reused, and recycled for an Off-Broadway run just three years after it played its final performance at the Nederlander Theatre, and any leftover grit clinging to Larson’s bohemian Village dwellers has been washed squeaky clean.
Familiarity might have something to do with it. We’ve grown used to Rent since it opened at New York Theatre Workshop in 1996 amidst the shock and tragedy of its 35-year-old author’s death of an undiagnosed aortic aneurism. Larson’s premature demise was followed by a Pulitzer Prize, four Tony Awards, a successful Broadway run, a major motion picture, multiple national and international tours, and more recently, a profusion of regional and college productions. We’ve grown accustomed to its theatrical audacity and take for granted its daring. For better or for worse, Rent has never left our cultural consciousness.
For Rent to send seismic ripples through the landscape of American theater once more, it would demand major rethought and reinterpretation by its director. Michael Greif has not done that. In what must be every director’s dream exercise, Greif returns to the show he has helmed since its earliest workshop in 1994 and polishes it for the twenty-first century with new staging, new projection design, new sets, and new costumes. As welcome as Rent’s new look is (leopard boots and striped scarves are nowhere to be seen), Greif offers no fresh dramaturgical perspective on a work well into its second decade. His cautious approach avoids the mistakes of London’s disastrous “Rent Remixed,” but it breaks no new ground. Everyone who loves Rent remembers the thrill of discovering it for the first time, and what I missed most in this second introduction was the old sense that I was watching something momentous, something which had never been done before. Producers Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum, and Allan Gordon have not given us another phenomenon but rather a tribute to a phenomenon.
While it surprises me that they would select New World Stages – a venue with all the edginess of a Midwestern shopping mall – to rehabilitate the image of a show that had long since faded into synthetic commerciality on Broadway, the fresh-faced cast of fourteen fills the 500-seat theater with enough conviction to remind you that – once upon a time – “Seasons of Love” was a heartbreaking elegy for young lives lost (Larson’s among them) before it was popularized as a choir and karaoke standard for a new generation.
With the exceptions of Annaleigh Ashford (Wicked) and Adam Chanler-Berat (Next to Normal) Greif has assembled a company of unknown performers who approach Larson’s material with refreshing irreverence. Rather than attempting to recreate the performances of an iconic original cast, this new generation offers different and occasionally surprising takes on beloved characters. Ashford’s unfailingly perky and earnest Maureen delivers a novel “Over the Moon,” and the vocal acrobatics she and Joanne (Corbin Reid) unleash on “Take Me Or Leave Me” reach stratospheric heights. Chanler-Berat, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Larson, is quietly self-contained as Mark as he gives an unadorned performance perhaps closer to the essence of the character’s self-protective detachment than the histrionic neuroticism employed by many of his predecessors.
Those already familiar with Rent will observe that Angel (MJ Rodriguez) has undergone the greatest transformation. The warm-hearted street drummer has shed his layers of protective drag to emerge as a boyish club kid whose relationship with Collins (Nicholas Christopher) is complex, masculine, and a good deal richer than the safe femininity we grew accustomed to on Broadway.
Although Larson’s portrayal of Angel’s AIDS-induced decline (and the torments and fears of the other HIV-positive characters) lacks the searing violence manifest in recent revivals of Angels in America and The Normal Heart, Rent has always been more of a celebration of hope and tenacity than a social indictment or a call to arms. Its politics may be tamer, but if nothing else this revival is a testament to the staying power of Larson’s songs, a ceaseless outpouring of craft, melody and heartfelt sentiment that goes a long way towards justifying the show’s premature return to New York.
But as I watched the hip young ensemble fling themselves about Mark Wendland’s striking metal jungle gym of a set, their vocals surrounded and occasionally drowned by Tim Weil’s slick orchestrations (an amplification of his original 1996 work), a strange thought struck me. This flashier production, with its eye-grabbing projections and head-banging choreography bore infinitely more resemblance to recent rock musicals like American Idiot and Next to Normal than it did to, well, Rent. How ironic indeed that today Rent finds itself indebted to the modern hits that never would have existed if Jonathan Larson’s unfinished masterpiece hadn’t taken the theater world by storm fifteen years ago.Kari Olmon