Sunday, November 27, 2011

theatre review RENT, Off Broadway, November 21

The musical Rent was a cultural phenomenon when it first opened in 1996, running over 12 years and 5,000 performances on Broadway and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  It also had several successful National Tours, was performed around the world, had a somewhat less successful film version and is even available in a slightly edited version for High Schools to perform.

For those who don't know the story behind the show, composer Jonathan Larson died the night before the first performance Off Broadway.  While that alone was enough news to make headlines, the story, characters and score of the show are what have turned it into a much loved musical.

Matt Shingledecker and Adam Chanler-Berat
The current Off Broadway production is a revival of sorts, opening a little shy of three years after the Broadway production closed.  And even though this production, like the original Broadway one, were both directed by Michael Greif, this production is very different in style and somewhat different in tone from the original.  Though I think the tone has much more to do with the cast then the direction.
Rent tells the story of a group of struggling young artists and musicians set in Manhattan's Alphabet City on the Lower East Side around 1990 and based somewhat on the Puccini opera La Boheme.  For Rent, the tragedy of AIDS replaces  tuberculosis in the Puccini opera and the grungy Lower East Side of Manhattan replaces Paris.

MJ (Michael) Rodriguez
For this Off Broadway revival Greif has stuck mostly to his original direction, staging key scenes pretty much the same as he did back in 1998, however he has added a few extra elements here and there to make them somewhat different as well as staging other scenes in fresh and different ways.  The biggest difference between the original production and this one is the set.  Originally a very minimalistic design with very few moving parts, this production uses multiple fire escape stair pieces as well as other metal elements and a few video screen backdrops scattered about the space to provide a more elaborate and chaotic element to the production.  While this mostly worked in favor of the chaos on stage at several times, it also sometimes worked against the piece in that with less space now available for the actors to move it provided a more cramped atmosphere.   The small band, which on Broadway was just off to the side of the stage has now been moved up to a balcony over the stage.

Matt Shingledecker and Arianda Fernandez
The cast for the revival is young and eager and some of them actually are quite effective in their portrayals of these young starving artists from 1990.  However, there is an urgency to much of the delivery of the material that is more simply rushed performances and not in the urgent nature of the show that doesn't quite connect with the material.  I especially liked Adam Chanler-Berat as Mark, the somewhat narrator of the piece, he was genuine, sincere and sang beautifully.  I also liked the raw emotionality of Arianda Fernandez as Mimi and Michael Rodriguez as Angel played the drag parts more in line with how I imagine a real drag queen would.  In the original Broadway production many people didn't know for certain if Angel was really a man in drag, but for this production you never question that, which I think it more realistic and preferable.  I also liked Corbin Reid's take on Joanne, she was feisty, sexy and romantic, all at the same time.  However, Matt Shingledecker as Roger just didn't quite gel with me.  He looked the part of an ex-rocker drug addict who is trying to deal with living with HIV, but didn't quite have the appropriate roughness in his voice to pull off the part.  He was more of an ex boy-band member then the urban rocker that the part requires.

Also, in the many times I saw Rent on Broadway there were always some understudies on for one or a couple of the key characters.  Our trip Off Broadway didn't stop that trend in that we had understudies on for both Maureen and Tom Collins.  However both were more than capable of getting to the nuances of the characters so the fact they were understudies didn't bother me at all.  Though, this was the first time I've ever seen a white actor on for the part of Collins, and I have to say it was a refreshing change.  The understudies we saw were Morgan Weed for Maureen and Ben Thompson for Collins.  Weed was simply amazing as Maureen and Thompson provided a perfectly emotional weight to his relationship with Angel.

After seeing this show about a dozen times, Rent is still an enjoyable piece of theatre with an energetic and timeless score.  Though I don't know if the many times I've seen the show have now made it have less of an impact on me, or if that has more to do with the somewhat chaotic and at times rushed performances on display in the Off Broadway production.  

Highlights from this revival:

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