Lots of people seem to have their nose out of joint over the new Off-Broadway production of Rent, which opened last night at the New World Stages. (Well, those who aren't complaining about Porgy and Bess.) It's only been three years since the Broadway production of Rent ended its twelve-year run, and here the producers go, trying to bring the show back to New York. "They're just trying to make money!" seems to be the rallying cry of these naysayers.
Um...what's wrong with that?
I think sometimes people forget that commercial theater is a business. Producers put up shows based, to a large extent, on whether those shows will make money. Why bring back Rent? Because the producers thought that people would pay to see it. It's really that simple.
I must admit, however, I wasn't champing at the bit to see Rent again, having taken in the original production, three different touring productions, the filmed live version, a recent production at the Boston Conservatory, and what can only charitably be called the "movie version." Each time I see Rent anew, I'm struck by the raw power of the show, but also by its manifold flaws. And yet, somehow Rent works, despite the imperfections. Somehow they make the show all the more endearing, partly I suppose because they serve to remind me of the stolen promise of the late Jonathan Larson, and how much he could have accomplished had he lived.
As for the current production of Rent, it seems as though the creative staff consciously set about justifying the lack of time between the original production and the present one by bringing giving the show a fresh coat of paint: a new design staff, new choreography, and a fresh-faced cast of relative newcomers who were very likely prepubescent when the show first premiered.
Is this a Rent re-invented? Not quite. At its core, the show remains the same, and I, for one, have no problem with that. The most significant holdover from the original production is director Michael Greif, but there didn't really seem to be anything new that he brought to the production. I did notice that the blocking for the "Halloween" was a lot more physical and aggressive than it was in the original production. This helped downplay the weakness of the scene itself, easily the most awkwardly written sequence in the show.
I was distracted by how much Greif seemed to feel compelled to take full advantage of set designer Mark Wendlan dense framework of girders, stairs, and movable platforms. On the one hand, the set gave Greif a chance to make full use of the height of the playing space. However, it also gave a sort of inevitability to the staging, with each scene seemingly forced into a new space simply for the sake of variety, as opposed to what was actually going to work for that scene. The set also tended to obscure certain moments in the show. When Collins says "Nice tree" to Angel, it wasn't entirely clear what he was referring to, because the Christmas paraphernalia are mostly obscured by the compressed grid of the set.
The new stage design also includes what have now become obligatory in professional productions in New York and beyond: projections, designed here by Peter Nigrini. (Did someone pass a law and I wasn't informed?) Admittedly, some of it works quite well, but somehow digital projections don't seem very '90s. They did, however, provide a really stunning effect during "What You Own." Initially, the projections during this song are isolated on a couple of screens, but when the song modulates, the projections suddenly wash the entire set. It was a really nice touch, and added greatly to the power of the song, and the moment.
The performance that I saw started off a bit indistinct and fragmented. Each cast member came off individually strong, but they weren't cohering into a larger whole, at least not at the beginning of the first act. It seemed more like a series of individual performances rather than an ensemble. The proceedings were professional, to be sure, but uninspired, at least until MJ Rodriguez made his entrance as Angel. Rodriguez is quite a find, a dynamic ball of energy and attitude. He lights up the stage whenever he's on, and his energy seemed infectious, as the rest of the cast seemed to come to life after his first few numbers.
Adding to this momentum was Annaleigh Ashford, giving an edgy and nuanced performance as Maureen. Her quirky, personalized touches during "Over the Moon" were especially effective, nicely emphasizing Maureen's enthusiastic amateurism. It made the song, which can be a real chore in the wrong hands, refreshingly sharp and funny. Matt Shingledecker as Roger seemed a bit bland at first, as though the casting director had taken the "pretty-boy front man" line from the show a bit too literally. But Shingledecker's performance built into a satisfying, if not quite overwhelming, crescendo, and he was especially affecting at the very end of the show, particularly due to the strength and timbre of his of rock-tenor voice.
One major hole in the cast is Arianda Fernandez as Mimi, who seems to have been cast based on her startling cat-girl appearance. But her voice was showing a significant amount of strain: she cracked three times during "Out Tonight" alone. Was it poor technique? A role that inevitably takes its vocal toll? A combination of both? Whatever it was, she overcompensated with mannerisms and line readings that brought more melodrama to the role than seemed necessary, and it made it hard at times to feel the full drama of Mimi's plight.
As Collins, Nicholas Christopher (Benny in the In the Heights tour) was a charming, silver-toned smoothie, although he seemed at first to be needlessly underplaying the romance with Angel. He eventually acquitted himself quite nicely, particularly during the reprise of "I'll Cover You," which still gets my vote for the most dramatically effective reprise ever. (Full disclosure: Nick is a former student of mine at the Boston Conservatory. But I try to make it clear to my students that, once they're out in the real world, the gloves are off.)
So, is it too soon for Rent to come back to New York? Not if you've never seen it. And even if you have, the current production seems to prove that Rent as a piece genuinely works, despite its flaws. Sure, some of the characters are a bit thinly sketched (particularly Mark). There are plentiful holes in the plot. (Why would the priest get angry when Collins can't pay the undertaker? They're not in business together.) There are some rather unbelievable coincidences. (The whole Evita the Akita nonsense.) And some of the character transformations seem to come out of nowhere. (Benny's a bad guy, then a good guy, then a bad guy at the end again.) But the show succeeds, and devastatingly so, mostly on the basis of its powerful score and moving story.