La Vie

Theater Add comments

For years, whether in cocktail parties or at work events, whenever I mention I’m a theater buff, someone would ostensibly reply back with, “That’s great! Rent is my favorite musical of all time.”  Hmmm, well, Rent really isn’t my favorite musical of all time, but I find it interesting that it’s one of the first things that a new acquaintance comes up with when trying to find common ground with my interests, whether in the interest of genuinely deepening the conversation, or merely trying to pass time with idle chitchat.  For my generation of theatergoers, Rent is probably the definitive musical, not just because the rock-music soundtrack and the numerous touring productions were ubiquitous for a time in the late 1990s/early 2000s, but also because we saw for once on the musical theater stage our young adult concerns vividly depicted: sexuality, hetero-, homo-, and everything in between; relationships; anti-materialism; pursuing one’s art at all costs.  For me, however, Rent, unlike, say Angels in America, which despite being anchored on a specific time period spoke to broader philosophical and socio-political concerns, always felt like an artifact of its time. And Rent’s time has definitely passed (for example, the squatter protests that playwright and composer Jonathan Larson depicted in the show look pretty quaint versus Occupy Wall Street’s fiery aspirations and methods).  It was “cool” and “current” to see Rent in 1999, with its references to AIDS, homelessness, bisexuality, drug use, S and M, transvestitism, topics that have been treated more insightfully in theater, film, and other performing arts since then. But leave it to a genius theater director such as David Cromer, who has put on a superb, lively version in a co-production between American Theater Company and About Face Theatre, to make Rent vital once again, surprisingly fresh at times despite its dated references, a show that this new generation of theatergoers can discover and claim as their own as well.

Cromer was responsible for two productions (Our Town and A Streetcar Named Desire) that have been unqualified highlights of my theatergoing life, and I think partly it’s because he has this uncanny ability to make the grand, the larger-than-life, the unabashedly theatrical up close and personal to the audience members.  Rent, an updating of Puccini’s La Boheme to the world of motley artists in the then-edgy East Village of Manhattan in the 1990s, has always been, like its source material, a story about relationships rather than socio-political concerns. Cromer brilliantly draws attention to the intimate relationships and sense of community in the text through various means:  he stages the play runaway-style (similar to Our Town) which really brings the audience in close quarters with the performers so that every bead of sweat and every wrinkled scowl and every pained confrontation is in exhilarating close-up (or as much of a close-up as you can get in live theater).  He has the terrific Collette Pollard come up with impressively detailed set pieces: apartments that look messily lived in; coffee shops that look shabbily stained; a St. Mark’s Place that looks like it can happily accommodate both grifters and artists and artist-grifters.  He stages the musical numbers without the bombast of Broadway: “One Song Glory” becomes a plaintive and heart-wrenching solo by a guy who knows his time is coming up; “La Vie Boheme” dispenses with the distractingly precious choreography and instead becomes a playful, sexy, refreshingly natural celebration of life without constraints; the famous “Seasons of Love” that opens Act 2 comes off as an unadorned conversation to live life to the fullest, versus a vibrato-filled, harmonizing-driven, Glee-like production number (it’s so unadorned, the audience didn’t really applaud after this signature number at the performance I attended).

But I think what Cromer does best in this Rent is to showcase an ensemble of exceptional performers, many in surprising characterizations.  There are several truly exciting performances in this show:  Esteban Andres Cruz’s Angel is a butch transvestite who nevertheless has a warm, enveloping, connector personality that makes the last scene when his spirit hovers above his friends not just believable, but expected.  Lili-Anne Brown’s Joanne isn’t your typical pushy, insecure lesbian who acts better than the rest because of her education and her family background – it’s a strong, confident performance that’s also pretty grounded and accessible.  Derrick Tumbly’s Roger is riveting – it’s not the romantic HIV-negative rockstar hero of Adam Pascal (who originated the role off-Broadway and on Broadway, and played it in the disappointing film version with most of the long-in-the-tooth original stage cast), but rather emotionally messy, vulnerable yet self-aware, guarded yet yearning for a connection.  He is terrific, and I gotta say very appealing (ahem).  Alan Schmuckler’s Mark is probably the most original characterization in this production – I saw Anthony Rapp play the role he originated in one of the many times I saw the show way back when, and it was always the showiest, most hyperactive performance, jumping around with his camera, berating his friends, selling the songs like an indie filmmaker version of Ethel Merman.  But Schmuckler, whose work is a slow burn and grows on you throughout the two and a half hours, is an inconspicuous, almost unemotional bystander, which actually make sense since he is not just the documentarian and archivist of this group, but also the conscience and voice. It’s a really interesting re-conception.

Rent is not a perfect production by any means: I’m perplexed as to why the orchestra is high up in the wings, hidden from view;  the decision to have both actors and stage crew come in the middle of songs either to take their places or change props is confusing and jarring; the holes in Larson’s book (how Mimi became Benny, the landlord’s, mistress; the underdeveloped support group set piece; the glossing over of intolerance against gays, present even in 1990s New York City) are still holes.  But Cromer has come up with an invigorating production.  At the end of the show, I thought, hey, maybe this was similar to the Rent audiences first saw at New York Theater Workshop in the early 1990s when they realized that the highly-anticipated next coming of the great American musical has actually arrived.

Rent continues till June 17 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron Street.

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

WP Theme & Icons by N.Design Studio
Entries RSS Comments RSS Log in