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Chicago by John Olson

Rent
American Theatre Company and About Face Theatre

Also see John's review of [title of show]

Rent
Alex Agard, Alan Schmuckler,
Esteban Andres Cruz and Derrick Trumbly

In an interview before the show's opening, director David Cromer, who earned much attention for his re-envisioning of Our Town, said not to expect a similar revisionist look for his upcoming production of Rent. If anyone suspected that was a matter of lowering expectations, they were right. His approach to Jonathan Larson's musical is a significant though not radical departure from the original direction by Michael Greif, which lived on through the Broadway productions and many touring companies for 14 years. While Greif's vision was almost Rent as rock concert (highly presentational), Cromer lowers the decibel levels and makes the words important. It's an admirable approach in its insistence on taking the characters seriously and playing it first as drama, with the music entirely in service of story. The results, though, are a very mixed bag, with some of his choices bordering on brilliant and others that made me wince.

The piece starts out quietly, slowly and darkly—literally. It's frequently hard to see the performers in Heather Gilbert's lighting design, especially with so much of the blocking in corners of the American Theatre Company's space, reconfigured to alley style for this production. Roger (Derrick Trumbly) seems to be in a rather serious depression and Mark (Alan Schmuckler) is just serious, looking for all the world like Karl Marx in a full beard. Fair enough—times are tough. It's cold and they have no heat. But the darkness of this approach makes it harder to set up the energetic defiance of the title song that follows (and never mind that those of us on the "wrong" side of the alley couldn't even see Mark or Roger for the scene) or the jubilation of "You'll See" when Collins finally arrives. Cromer takes his cast so seriously that he doesn't allow the humor of Larson's gently wry comment on his characters to land. This Rent is a terribly serious affair and the decision to emphasize the pathos in it has taken most of the individuality and quirkiness from the characters, leaving them all pretty bland and humorless.

It is, though, a well-sung Rent—at least it was on the night I attended—and the instrumental performance of the score under the music direction off Timothy Splain is top-notch. The first of two press preview nights—the one I was planning to attend—was cancelled for technical reasons, but the second one (which I had to miss) went on per schedule. Trumbly shows some impressive pipes, even in spite of Cromer making him sing "One Song Glory" with his back to my side of the room. (Roger sat on a sofa bed facing away from our section, forcing the depressed guy to stay quite stationary and facing away from us, though one of two posts blocked most of his back anyway). His Mimi is Grace Gealey, and her characterization is one of the bright spots of the show. She's sort of a grounded, vulnerable Mimi and, even if her rough edges have been sanded way down, I found it more believable that she could draw Roger out of his funk. Gealey's singing voice is a bit thin, but otherwise clear and expressive. Alex Agard makes a very impressive Chicago debut as Collins, with a big golden voice that is the highlight of the show. Lili-Anne Brown is also a vocal knockout as Joanne—a believably in-control attorney (though as directed here, not a particularly funny one). Aileen May fares better in the humor department as performance artist Maureen, with her "Over the Moon" number aided by an intentionally ridiculous cow head sporting illuminated eyes. Esteban Andres Cruz is a solid if confusingly facial-hair-adorned drag queen Angel, and sings well when allowed to. (His first verse of "I'll Cover You" is spoken.) Tony Santiago struggles some with intonation as Benny and never quite finds an angle on this most fascinating character of the whole lot—the former bohemian who's sold out to the wealthy class but is not entirely ready to cut ties with them.

Cromer's choice to play the piece as drama has its rewards. He directs "La Vie Bohème" as a scene as much as a song. Mark (sung quite capably but colorlessly in this production's conception) begins by quite seriously addressing the crowd. The guests are seated at separate, small tables rather than the long table used in Greif's version. This allows greater flexibility in the blocking so characters can move about and interact with each other more freely. (This smart choice is followed by a questionable one in which the riot ensuing in the vacant lot is shown in a too-literal slo-mo pantomime.) Cromer has an arresting visual for Angel's funeral, with Collins standing alone outside the door to (presumably) the church and remembering the eulogies given by their friends (heard in recordings). Angel's death is handled economically in a short dance sequence that makes the point a lot faster than in Greif's staging. Sadly, it's not Angel's last appearance in the show. He returns in the finale, flitting/floating from offstage to join the cast before final bows. (That is one of the wincing parts.)

The choreography by Jessica Redish includes some odd choices as well. For "Santa Fe," she has the characters doing little skips and pirouettes that are entirely out of place and out of character. But if her riot scene is too literal and Angel's ghostly return too poetic, she has a great concept for the "Contact" death dream, and the Christmas Eve "On the Street" scene on St. Mark's Place is lively and colorful (with help from costumes by David Hyman and props by Katherine Greenleaf). The set design by Collette Pollard—with painted walls on both sides of the playing area alley—helps establish location better than the Broadway version did, but the confusing sound design by Lindsay Jones and Victoria Delorio make it sometimes hard to know where scenes were coming from and who is speaking, given Cromer's penchant for staging action in corners of the large playing area.

Those who like Rent may find this version surprising and off-putting, but they may appreciate the exploration of new levels in the piece. It feels like Cromer was on his way to an intriguing interpretation of the piece but ran out of time before working it all out. Even if the result doesn't entirely work in total, this production makes a case for further exploration of this musical.

Rent will be performed through June 17, 2012 at the American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron, Chicago. Tickets information is available online at www.atcweb.org, by phone at 773-409-4125 or at the Box Office.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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