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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Rent: The Broadway Tour
The Heart Beat Goes On

Also see Bob's review of Mary's Wedding

Rent began life at the 150 seat New York Theatre Workshop in January, 1996.  It was staged by Michael Greif in almost presentational, concert style with minimal scenery, and much of the largely sung-through performances played downstage.  When a couple of months later Rent moved to Broadway and added 1,000 more seats, Greif wisely retained the original ambiance, scenery and direction.  His vision proved unassailable as Jonathan Larsen's thrilling eclectic score and heartfelt and witty libretto required only the talent and boundless enthusiasm of its youthful cast to fill every corner of the Nederlander Theatre with its power and joyousness.  After winning four Tony Awards including Best Musical, a remarkable run of more than 12 years and 5,123 performances, the bittersweet closing of the Broadway production of Rent came on September 7, 2008.  However, last month (January 6, 2009), the producers who put Rent on Broadway, put Rent: The Broadway Tour on the road with original cast members Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp.

Rent Tour
Cast of Rent

With Rent now in larger concert hall sized theatres, Michael Greif's decision to retain a semi-concert staging is paying further dividends.  Rent feels closer to the audience in the expanse of NJPAC's Prudential Hall than any other musical that I have seen there. Most rewarding in this spacious, more formal setting is the heightening of the sense that Rent is a grand opera.  Not simply a rock opera, but a powerful, romantic La Boheme for the modern era.  In addition to the electronic rock music, there is music in a more traditional Broadway style with stylistic passages reminiscent of Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim.  His range here also includes a tango, and soul and Latino music.  There are complex choral numbers and romantic arias with operatic motifs.  There were many young "rent-heads" in the audience, cheering and screaming, to aid the company in turning up the heat.   This is all to the good.  However, in the large hall, the grand operatic beauty of Jonathan Larson's music rises above all else more than ever.  Parenthetically, even his list songs have lyrics so dense and brain teasingly quirky that my usual objections to such songs falls by the wayside.

The tragic death of 35-year-old Larson on the night prior to Rent's opening at NYTW may have contributed to the show's success.  Hindsight makes me doubt that.  The quality of Larson's music, lyrics and book is exceptional.  How extraordinary is it that he was able to turn this tragic story of starving artists, and AIDS-infected drug addicts and homosexuals in pre-gentrification Alphabet City into an uplifting, joyous experience without softening any of its inherent horrors.  His primary tool is the already noted music.  The beauty of Larson's score is transcendent.  His music is enhanced by the sheer delight of his sophisticated lyrics.  A grand example is "Light My Candle", an enchanting courtship song to a salsa beat which centers on Mimi's drug addiction.  Additionally, there is an affecting sentiment which has been the hallmark of musical theatre from Puccini to Richard Rodgers to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Without a precisely directed, talented and enthusiastic cast, Larson's outstanding effort would go for naught (after having seen and loved the Broadway production on several occasions during the first year or two of its run, I returned to Rent during the eighth year or thereabouts of its run when a television contest winner was featured.  The production—which was restored sometime thereafter—had become so slack and sloppy that it bore only a scant resemblance to the Rent which I had seen when it was new).

Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp are performing with the energy and craft which they originally brought to Roger and Mark.  Their physical maturation during the thirteen years since they premiered these roles was not visible from where I sat. I would hazard an educated guess that their age will not be noticeable from most seat locations.  Pascal perfectly bridges the operatic, traditional theatre and rock elements which Larson has managed to meld into Roger's major arias.  There is a rock star sexuality in his stage persona which is a major asset here.  Anthony Rapp perfectly captures the good guy, best friend persona of Mark.  A highlight is his duet with the charming and amusing Haneefah Wood (Joanne), "Tango: Maureen," one of Larson's wittiest songs.

Lexi Lawson's appealing and sympathetic Mimi is exceptional.  The smooth, supple vocalization and projected sexuality which Lawson brings to "Out Tonight" lifts it into the stratosphere. She is one of only two cast members who have not appeared in Rent on Broadway and/or on prior tours.  Nicolette Hart is a too harsh Maureen.  Maureen may be a bitch, but her appeal would be more believable and the role more entertaining if larded with snippets of charm and humor.

Justin Johnson is a delightful and fully convincing Angel.  Michael McElroy brings a very strong soulful and comforting presence to Angel's Tom Collins.  Jacques C. Smith is convincing as former friend turned landlord Benny.  Each member of the seven member ensemble has extensive vocal duties, and portrays several small, but not unimportant, roles expertly.

Rent: The Broadway Tour is top drawer in every respect.

Rent: The Broadway Tour continues performances through February 15 at Prudential Hall at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), One Center Street, N Newark, N.J., 07102. Box Office: 888-466-5722; online: www.njpac.org for performance schedule.

Rent: The Broadway Tour Book, Music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson; directed by Michael Greif

Cast

Roger Davis…………………………..Adam Pascal
Mark Cohen………………………….Anthony Rapp
Tom Collins……………………….Michael McElroy
Benjamin Coffin III……………..Jacques C. Smith
Joanne Jefferson………………...Haneefah Wood
Angel Schunard…………………..Justin Johnston
Mimi Marquez………………………….Lexi Lawson
Maureen Johnson…………………..Nicolette Hart
Mark's mother, others……………..Caren Tackett
Christmas caroler, others…………..John Watson
Mrs. Jefferson, others……………...Gwen Stewart
Gordon, others………………………...Adam Halpin
Steve, others……………………………..Telly Leung
Paul, others……………………………….Andy Senor
Alexi Darling……………………………Yuka Takara

Rent: The Broadway Tour, is playing the following cities: Cleveland, OH (January 6-11); Buffalo, NY (January 13-18); Durham, NC (January 20-25); Charlotte, NC (January 27-February 1); Philadelphia, PA (February 3-8); Newark, NJ (February 10-15); Detroit, MI (February 17-22); Los Angeles, CA (March 3-8); San Diego, CA (March 10-15); Tempe, AZ (March 17-22); Minneapolis, MN (March 24-29); Chicago, IL (March 31-April 12); Pittsburgh, PA (April 14-19); Rochester, NY (April 21-26); Houston, TX (April 28-May 3); Dallas, TX (May 5-10); Austin, TX (May 12-17); Washington, DC (May 26-31); St. Louis, MO (June 2-7); Denver, CO (June 9-14); Seattle, WA (June 16-21); Portland, OR (June 23-28); Tampa, FL (July 7-12); Boston, MA (July 14-26); Schenectady, NY (July 28-Aug 2).  For complete tour schedule and information visit www.siteforrent.com 


Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey


Photo: Joan Marcus


- Bob Rendell



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