When it transferred to Broadway in 1996, trailing a Pulitzer and zooming toward multiple Tony wins, Jonathan Larson's Rent was a revelation to some and a punch line to others. On the astonished side, you had many New York critics eager to champion a piece with the veneer of hipness and youthful urgency. Meanwhile, snickers and eyeball rolls came from people who had actually done the East Village thing: gone broke, made theater, got high and had their heart broken in a neighborhood that, by the early '90s, was already the overpriced sandbox of trustafarians and NYU brats. The spectacle of cute bohemians belting power ballads about AIDS and art on the Great White Way seemed doubly commodified. When I finally caught up with Rent in 2001, I wanted to leave at intermission, feeling no compelling reason (narrativewise) to stay. Moreover, the rock portions of Larson's score were overblown and phony, the characters whiny. But by then, it didn't matter what I thought. Attended by endless hordes of Rentheads (did they actually visit the LES or just surge en masse to the Nederlander?), the show ran for 12 years before closing in 2008. Guess who had the last laugh?
Beyond the question of whether or not Rent was culturally authentic, the fact remained: Lots of people admire this "rock opera" update of Puccini's La Bohme with a fanatical devotion...and others do not. As someone in the latter category, I was surprised by my mild enjoyment of some numbers in the current, downsized Off Broadway revival---even though the musical is ultimately defeated by structural weakness and its dumbed-down, romanticized portrayal of 1990s starving artists, squeegee men, junkie strippers and magical transvestites.
Director Michael Greif's chamber-version cast does make some improvements on the original. Adam Chanler-Berat, as shy video artist Mark Cohen, has a low-key nebbishy charm and frisky intelligence that was lacking in Anthony Rapp's strenuous, white-bread conception of the character. Likewise, Nicholas Christopher's gentle community activist Tom Collins and MJ Rodriguez's sassy drag queen Angel overcome the treacly niceness with which their roles are written to create a charismatic couple both drawn together and torn apart by AIDS. It helps that both can sing.
Which is more than you can say for another pair of lovers in this production---HIV-infected songwriter Roger (Matt Shingledecker) and heroin addict--exotic dancer Mimi (Arianda Fernandez). Both are frequently flat and strident in their vocals, making Larson's pseudo-rock numbers even more bombastic and silly. If only Greif and his casting agent had found a young actor who cut a believable grunge figure and made Roger's search for a new song seem less like the amateur noodling of a pouty poseur. Alas, Shingledecker, clad in tight-fitting plaid pants, hair moussed up, looks more like a well-fed roadie for Hootie and the Blowfish than a sickly, tortured troubadour.
The final romantic duo in the story, lesbian performance diva Maureen (Annaleigh Ashford) and buttoned-up lawyer Joanne (Corbin Reid), offers sparks and chuckles, but the miscast Ashford flattens an already attenuated caricature. Rather than try to rediscover Maureen and her (admittedly foolish) solo art, Ashford squeaks her lines and stuffs cheap sight gags into nearly every moment.
Humor is a tricky thing to try to inject into Rent. The musical, despite Larson's occasional feint at irreverence or poking fun at his characters, is earnest and brooding to a fault. Larson's score has always been problematic, with touching, sensitive love songs ("Seasons of Love," "Without You") uneasily cohabiting with clunky or pretentious power pop ("Out Tonight," "What You Own"). Larson was a concise, elegant lyricist who had a good ear for soft, melting ballads, but his second-act book falls apart, the score rounded out with B-sides.
I wish Larson had lived to outgrow his greatest hit. The passage of time may have softened my previously derisive attitude toward Rent. Now that 15 years have passed since its earliest previews at New York Theatre Workshop, the show comes across as a sweet, idealistic museum piece. And whatever else the critics say this time, rest assured: The Rentheads will come.
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