nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
August 5, 2011
Rentheads rejoice! Just three short (or interminable, depending on who you ask) years after Jonathan Larson’s legendary rock opera ended its twelve-and-a-half-year Broadway run, Rent has returned to New York City, in a reconceived off-Broadway staging helmed by original director Michael Greif.
Larson never lived to see his spectacular success, his Pulitzer Prize win, or the legions of fans who found hope and solace in his messages of “forget regret” and “no day but today.” And while the East Village and Alphabet City he depicted have been gentrified over time, time has not dimmed the material itself, which feels fresher now at New World Stages than it did in its last handful of years at the Nederlander. Yet the production is almost too polished—it lacks grit.
Greif has stated in recent interviews that this is his opportunity to rethink elements that he didn’t have time to rework while quickly shepherding the show to Broadway in 1996. While the baby-faced cast members are never quite believable as struggling artists or drug addicts or as people suffering from a fatal disease, there is a certain amount of clarity in some of the material’s more questionable moments that was never apparent before. Greif has managed to mask assorted plot holes so they go virtually unnoticed. Even the ending—a departure from the musical’s source material, Puccini’s La Boheme—doesn’t seem as outlandish as it once did. To the cast’s credit, they sing the score in such a way that every lyric and punctuation mark is clearly heard and understood. They’ve even found ways of getting laughs on lines that didn’t ordinarily get laughs.
Adam Chanler-Berat plays Mark Cohen, an aspiring filmmaker documenting a year in the life of his friends, a motley group that includes his ex-junkie rocker roommate Roger (Matthew Shingledecker), determined to write one great song before he dies of AIDS; his ex-girlfriend Maureen (Annaleigh Ashford), a performance artist who left him for a tough-as-nails female attorney named Joanne (Corbin Reid); his former roommate Tom Collins (Nicholas Christopher), an anarchist and professor, who, with his new beau Angel (MJ Rodriguez), has AIDS; Benny (Ephraim Sykes), a former friend turned evil landlord; and Mimi Marquez (Arianda Fernandez), Roger’s drug-addicted love interest who also is dying from the disease.
While the singing is strong, the acting lacks that crucial danger. Shingledecker and Fernandez never quite connect, to the detriment of the central love story. Conversely, Christopher and Rodriguez have a very strong relationship, and Rodriguez imbues Angel with a no-nonsense but loving attitude, providing a multitude of laughs and strong character choices. The same can be said of the sensationally funny Ashford, who transforms Maureen from a sexually-charged diva in control to a high-maintenance, babyish twenty-something, completely unaware of anything that doesn’t have to do with Maureen. There’s a very clear tug-of-war for her affection going on throughout from Reid, who nicely underplays Joanne, and Chanler-Berat, who is clearly still in love with his once-ladyfriend. He is particularly affecting as Mark, who, always filming and bearing a rather striking resemblance to Larson, keeps a watchful eye on the proceedings.
Occasionally, the production is a bit too busy, with dancers (the choreography is provided by Lawrence Keigwin), projections (designed by Peter Nigrini), lighting (by Kevin Adams), and set (by Mark Wendland) all competing for the same space. Wendland’s set, more realistic than Paul Clay’s iconic original, is an industrial jungle gym of fire escapes, ladders and moving platforms, the love child of his designs for Greif’s recent productions of Angels in America and Next to Normal. Angela Wendt has brilliantly reconsidered her original costume design, providing outfits that look similar to what was seen on Broadway, while still seeming all new. Perhaps the biggest differences are a more masculine but still flashy look for Angel and Mark’s lack of a scarf.
Most impressive is Brian Ronan’s sound design, which perfectly blends the vocals of the fourteen-member company with the rockin’ five-member band in a way that doesn’t blow up the audience’s ear drums.
While Rent left New York for a time, it has never really disappeared. Dozens of productions have sprung up around the country at regional theaters, on college campuses and by local groups. Still, there’s just something about it being back in New York City. Welcome home Rent, and may you have an even more prosperous run at New World Stages than you did at the Nederlander.