Expectations and Rent are difficult partners, as rare indeed is the modern musical that has accumulated as much (mostly positive) baggage as this one. Nearly everything about it is legendary in some way: How Larson died the night before the first NYTW preview; the initial cast of supremely talented nobodies, from which emerged no fewer than seven stars (a couple of which approached mega status); how its young devotees literally camped out for days for then-unheard-of rush tickets to see it at a fraction of its full-scale-ticket cost; and on and on. The 1996 version was more than a show: It was a phenomenon.
What’s important for 2011, however, is that it’s not one this revival’s director has sought to recreate in toto, though one certainly couldn’t blame him for doing so: Michael Greif directed both that production and this one. The two do not look, sound, or feel the same, and that’s the revival’s greatest asset as well as its greatest liability.
But what does not, and cannot, interfere is the work itself. Its description of a year in the lives of a group of new-wave Bohemians in Alphabet City, who are fighting to maintain their artistic and their social street cred, is as tart and affecting as ever. The romance between the rock musician Roger and the S&M dancer Mimi, both infected with HIV, is intricate and intimate in its treatment of pains shared and hidden. The wry contrasts of “actual reality” lecturer Collins and street sculptor Angel (both also HIV-positive), and of performance artist Maureen and lawyer Joanne, capture a fuller moving picture of life on the economic edge in the early 1990s; and that’s one that’s committed to celluloid by aspiring documentarian Mark.
By turns piercing, plaintive, and passionate (and, most of the time, all three simultaneously), Larson’s writing blends razor-edged pop with rap, salsa, and even traditional-musical patter. The big showpieces — like the Avenue B–consuming title song, the frenetic first act finale “La Vie Boheme,” and Roger and Mark’s searing duet “What You Own” — are expert stereotypical features of this kind of show. But Roger and Mimi’s courtship, beginning with the low-key “Light My Candle” and progressing through “I Can Tell You” and the aching “Without You,” is genuine, heartfelt character writing. Collins and Angel sing numbers that catch all the energy of unexpected, yet briefly burning, love. And Maureen and Joanne blast through their on-again-off-again in numbers of delicious comedy tinged with anxious desperation.
It all works not just because it’s all real and all unique, but because Larson was a true theatre artist, the kind of writer who knew — and cared — about what was necessary to properly tell a story: real rhymes; rock-solid characters; sweeping variety; and startlingly specific honesty. Compared to other “groundbreaking” musicals from recent years that have pretended to break such rules but really just ignored them, Rent is at once a lush emotional spectacle in the Golden Age tradition and a pulsating New Idea, one with a core of intelligence and strength that will allow it to thrive in productions at all levels for decades to come.
This new Off-Broadway incarnation is among New Yorkers’ first real proof of its survival instincts, even if it’s not as clever or (yes, I mean this) elaborate as the original. Mark Wendland’s set recalls that mounting’s tiers of scaffolding, and goes even further to compartmentalize the Lower East Side, but without an overarching sense of playful, makeshift invention. Angela Wendt, who designed costumes the first time around, has hipped up her street gear for almost everyone, though making Angel a run-of-the-mill street-glamour queen rather than a drag queen is not successful. Kevin Adams’s lights are fine for the occasion; and Brian Ronan’s sound design is a perfect fit for the show’s history of mushy audio, complete with those iconic, distracting cheek mics.
That’s more difficult to say about the performers. Greif has not “tracked” his actors here with his old ideas, but for the most part the actors don’t convey many ideas at all. With the exception of Annaleigh Ashford, who wrings every drop of caustic humor from Maureen, this is an underpowered, indistinct group.
Adam Chanler-Berat (best known as the philosopher boyfriend in Next to Normal) is a Mark utilizing the character’s trademark whine in speech and song, but lacking his central torment of being torn between his art, his livelihood, and his loneliness. The Roger of Matt Shingledecker is distractingly boy-next-door nice, all “pretty boy front man” without the darkness of soul that so attracts Mimi. Then again, as Mimi, Arianda Fernandez is so chilly and unlikable, more likely to growl than beguile, their relationship never ignites anyway. Nicholas Christopher’s Collins, Ephraim Sykes’s Benjy (Mark and Cohen’s former roommate, now a rich and kept man), Corbin Reid’s Joanne, and MJ Rodriguez’s Angel are still more at odds with Larson’s writing: It demands blazing fire, they max out at room temperature.
Taken together, they represent this revival's signature problem: indifference. Vivifying as the show may be, like even the greatest works in the canon it needs more. Whether because of the underlying message, Larson’s light too early extinguishing itself, or more likely a combination of the two, the original production was characterized — even through countless replacements and understudies, both in New York and elsewhere — by an overwhelming sense of abandon in every moment that singaled all the characters believed, as a crucial lyric puts it, that they had “no day but today.” It was exactly what this show should be above all else: urgent. This revival is Rent controlled.