Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
With a long run on Broadway, a motion picture version, a filming of the stage version, its numerous well-earned accolades, and many devoted fans, the musical Rent is always a popular show on tour. However, fewer things could sell tickets to the show than its current status, the casting of the two original lead performers in the roles they made famous on stage and in the movie version. With Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal skillfully recreating their memorable performances accompanied by a talented supporting cast, this tour of Rent that currently plays at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati is one for fans of the show to relish.
Rent is a modern retelling of La Boheme and follows one year in the lives of the counter-culture residents of Alphabet City in New York City in the mid-1990s. While trying to overcome the obstacles of poverty, AIDS, drug addiction and bloated egos, the eight central characters still reach for dreams and form bonds of lasting friendship.
The musical is the work of the late Jonathan Larson, who died unexpectedly at the age of 35 just days before the show started previews Off-Broadway. Mr. Larson never got to see the numerous accolades that his show would garner, including the 1996 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book and the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The almost completely sung-through musical features an effective mix of rock and pop melodies that capture the raw emotion and sometimes desperation of the characters. The songs are tuneful and memorable, with musical highlights including "Seasons Of Love," the soulful "I'll Cover You," "One Song Glory"a gut wrenching anthem chronicling a character's desire to write one good song before he dies of AIDSand so many others. The high-powered score fits well into the theatrical context of the show. The book introduces unique yet believable characters and uses humor, tragedy, and numerous other devices to produce an entertaining, emotional, moving, gritty and gripping story.
Getting to see performers who created these now famous roles is something special. As Mark, the video photographer making a documentary about life in Alphabet City, Anthony Rapp brings an endearing manic energy to the role, sings wonderfully, and is an excellent foundation for this first-rate cast. Adam Pascal remains an intense and emotionally tortured Roger, and his powerful vocals are a perfect fit for the score. Original cast member Gwen Stewart is also on hand, and is especially moving in her solo in "Seasons of Love."
As the wild drug addict Mimi, Lexi Lawson displays raw emotion, physical grace and flexibility, and a clear singing voice suitable for the role. Caren Tackett doesn't sing the role of Maureen as powerfully as others who have preceded her (though she's certainly sufficient), but is fun and aptly humorous, especially in "Over The Moon." As Joanne, the uptight lawyer and lesbian lover to Maureen, Haneefah Wood supplies strong singing and worthwhile acting choices. Broadway vet Michael McElroy is an extremely winning Tom Collins, providing the needed warmth for the role and singing with beautiful soulful vocals. As Angel, the cross-dressing performance artist, Justin Johnston is a delight, with a dynamic overall performance and great singing throughout. Jacques C. Smith is aptly self-indulgent as Benny, the group's former friend who has abandoned them for a life of luxury. The other performers play multiple roles and display their obvious talents throughout the musical.
This tour of Rent boasts Michael Greif's original stage direction. Mr. Greif won numerous awards as Best Director for the show and for good reason. He brings the complex book to the stage through fluid movement and imaginative storytelling while maintaining the human qualities that are central to the plot. The choreography by Marlies Yearby is lively and fun. David Truskinoff leads an energetic, rockin' and talented five-piece band.
The design for the tour likewise duplicates that of the original Broadway production. The environmental unit set by Paul Clay is multi-useful and fits the tone of the piece well. Costumes by Angela Wendt are appropriate and attractive. Blake Burba's lighting design is stark and evocative.
Local audiences shouldn't underestimate the value of seeing skilled performers bring the roles they shaped and created in now established shows such as Rent to their town. With original Broadway cast actors providing still strong and suitable portrayals, and newer performers capably doing their part as well, this current national tour of Rent is a must-see for fans of the show, and a should-see for everyone else. The show continues in Cincinnati at the Aronoff Center through November 1, 2009. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.-- Scott Cain