A new 20th-anniversary touring production attempts to recapture the ’90s magic of Jonathan Larson’s much-loved musical.
This 20th-anniversary touring production of Jonathan Larson’s uniquely impactful 1996 “rock” opera—unique because the promising composer died at 35 before he could produce more—faithfully recreates the original Broadway staging (with some small updates, like the tweaks costume designer Angela Wendt made for the 2011 Off Broadway revival). Chicago audiences know Rent can be reinvented; see Scott Weinstein’s intimate, unmiked production for Theo Ubique last year, or David Cromer’s grunged-up version for American Theater Company and About Face Theatre in 2012.
But Larson’s La bohème-inspired portrait of modern bohemians on Manhattan’s Lower East Side will forever be of its moment—if not already a little dated even at the moment it premiered—and for the show’s legions of diehard fans, there’s real pleasure seeing it preserved in painfully earnest amber.
That’s not to say this touring version has nothing new to offer. The non-Equity cast is young and very green—all eight principals were 25 or under when the tour kicked off last fall—but that’s only appropriate for the angsty, ardent characters they play. Danny Harris Kornfeld brings an endearingly nerdy intelligence to quasi-narrator Mark, while Katie LaMark embraces mini-diva Maureen’s gawkier side. This production’s Collins and Angel, Aaron Harrington and David Merino, both feel like real finds; Merino fires up the first act with a blazing “Today 4 U,” and Harrington brings down the house with his soulful Act II reprise of “I’ll Cover You.”
Kaleb Wells and Skyler Volpe, as Roger and Mimi, struggle a bit more to connect with the audience, but that’s been true of these characters in every Rent I’ve seen, saddled as they are with Larson’s most maudlin melodrama and puffed-up power pop numbers. But overall, this tour makes a strong appeal to existing fans of the show’s overly romanticized starving artists, and is likely to make some new converts to “La Vie Bohème.”
Oriental Theatre. Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Evan Ensign, based on original direction by Michael Greif. With Kaleb Wells, Danny Harris Kornfeld, Aaron Harrington, Christian Thompson, Jasmine Easler, David Merino, Skyler Volpe, Katie LaMark. Running time: 2hrs 40mins; one intermission.