Rent has returned to Seattle and will be camped out at Seattle's Paramount Theatre through January 13th. And may I say upfront how irked I am by the current touring cast? I go to see the show, armed with preconceived notions as to enjoyment factor and a review sketched out in my head, and what do they do? They give such a kick-ass performance that my witty, carefully thought out tirade on the show went right out the window. They'll pay for that, I promise you.
In all seriousness, two years ago I saw Rent in its last visit to our fair city and was extremely underwhelmed and thought the show suffered from some serious flaws. I could not even begin to understand the popularity, not to mention the Pulitzer, that greeted Rent when it burst on the scene five years ago. Perhaps I had been immersed in the hype for so long that Rent would have had to have included the staging of the second coming for it to live up to the hoopla. Perhaps it was the fact that I had just gotten done doing a show with an actor who had the annoying habit of singing "Would you light my candle" every five minutes (and only that line, thank you very much). Perhaps it was the fact that the show was so over amplified that it was hard to hear oneself think, much less understand any lyrics. Or perhaps it simply was the fact that Mimi and Roger had no chemistry, were incredibly boring to watch, and threw the whole show off balance.
Whatever the reason, that production ofRent did not click for me, and all I noticed were its flaws. And let's face it; Rent has more than its share of those. While the first act is polished and well structured, the second act is a rambling mess that peters out after the emotional high point of the entire show; the death of Angel (which unfortunately happens early in the act). The character of Mimi, the HIV+ junkie/exotic dancer, is poorly written and most of her character development occurs off-stage. To top it off, the show is unsure of its focus: does it belong to Mimi and Roger? Angel and Tom Collins? Or to the narrator, Mark? And most importantly, why on earth does Mimi get to return from the dead after having the weakest song sung to her, when Angel remains dead after the heart-rending "I'll Cover You" is sung over him?
While these flaws still remain, remarkably it didn't matter this time around. The current touring cast is one of the strongest companies I have seen and there is not a weak performance on that stage, be it principal or chorus. All involved give bravura performances without standing out or stealing the show and create a unified ensemble. Dominique Roy is superb as Mimi, pulling off the delicate balance between innocence and raw sexuality with ease. Not only is she an incredible singer and dancer, but she perfectly fleshed out the sketchily written part with subtle nuances and a strong grasp of character. She was well matched by Cary Shields as Roger and the two had a believably intense sexual chemistry that ignited some serious sparks. Shaun Earl was absolutely incredible as Angel, and how he could perform all those gymnastic moves in those high platform heels is beyond me. Maggie Benjamin rocked as Maureen and turned "Over the Moon" (a song that went nowhere in the previous viewing) into a performance-art tour de force. As her lover, Joanne, Jacqueline B. Arnold blew the roof off the joint, and her duet with Mark (Matt Caplin), "Tango: Maureen" was a comic highlight.
As I said before, the cast rocked and brought a delightful joie de vivre that was infectious and made it impossible not to be carried away. This is a show that needs a strong cast that is perfectly balanced and in tune not only with the piece but with each other. If you love the show, you'll definitely love this cast. And if, like me, you were ambivalent to downright hostile about it, I strongly recommend paying it a repeat visit to help see what all the fuss is about (and have a great time in the process).
Rent plays at Seattle's Paramount Theatre January 8th through the 13th before continuing on its tour. For ticket information call 206-292-ARTS or visit the box office at 901 Pine Street. In the tradition of Rent shows around the country, $20 tickets are available for the first two rows.