Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Paper Mill Playhouse
Review by Bob Rendell

Alisa Melendez
Photo by Evan Zimmerman
The iconic Rent is a landmark of the American rock musical. Arguably, it is the best American rock musical ever written. The recitative is so melodious that every piece of music sounds like a song in and of itself. It is also brilliantly complex. A joyous ode to individual freedom, caring for one's fellow man, and respecting those who choose to live alternative life styles ("la vie boheme"), it is also a tragic and moving anti-illegal drug usage musical, a magic realism finale which serves to reinforce its la vie boheme theme. Rent's deep themes also extend to depicting how our weaknesses, and individuals who would punish those whose lifestyles differ from their own, can undermine lives.

Thus, it is especially saddening to have to report that Paper Mill Playhouse's current production of Rent is by far the worst, most obtuse production I have seen in more than thirty years of attending almost every production here.

It appears to me that director Zi Alikhan hasn't the slightest idea of what Rent is all about. From this production, it seems he was interested in using his opportunity to show off how flamboyantly spectacular and busily self-aggrandizing his work can be. What Alikhan has delivered is visually ugly and painful to watch. This Rent's totally distracting production undermines every aspect of Jonathan Larson's complex, brilliant work. There is so much nothing going on: projection sets that are flashing, smoking, blurred, filled with static, overly bright, ludicrously colored, and unevocative; partially and fully curtained sets; a large number of videos cluttering the stage; and innumerable projected film images. There are costumes that are more appropriate to a flamboyantly large-scale, old-fashioned burlesque show than a gay East Village show or Rent's depiction of one.

The beautifully modulated score, with its sensitive, humane lyrics, is substantially reduced to hash by largely having its modulation being thrown out of the window. Volume and powerful voices are pushed to their limits repeatedly at the expense of the wide range of emotional subtleties contained in Larson's music, lyrics and book. The booming presentation of the score often removes its emotional content and, furthermore, makes it impossible to concentrate on and distinguish any emotional content that remains.

More. One character delivers performance art to protest the eviction of artists. Originally, the performance, while containing satire, had a true feel for what such a performance would be like. Alikhan has broadened the performance tremendously. Also, a prologue has been added depicting a superfluous series of down and outers in the Village. There is a scene depicting this situation more effectively already in the musical. Why lengthen an already lengthy first act with an extended prologue that adds nothing? I could go on and on with more examples. However, these are relatively isolated scenes that are clear examples of the myriad examples of the destruction of a great musical.

Some cast members manage to find moments in which they display their solid talent. Jordan Barrow (Benjamin) gives the evening its most natural, believable performance. Alisa Melendez (Mimi) displays the most sensitivity, particular in her quieter songs and most more sensitive scenes. Terrance Johnson (Tom Collins) is charismatic.

However, inescapably, this wrong-headed production of Rent ruins every aspect of itself.

Rent runs through July 2, 2023, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. Performances: Evenings, Wednesday - Sunday at 7 p.m.; Matinees, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday at 1:30 p.m. For tickets and information, please visit or call 973-376-4343

Cast: Lauryn Alexandria (Mark's Mom, Soloist, others); Rickens Anantua (Christmas Caroler, Pastor, others); Jordan Barrow (Benjamin Coffin III); Leana Rae Concepcion (Joanne Jefferson); Andrew Faria (Steve, Waiter, others); Terrance Johnson (Tom Collins); Olivia Lux (Angel Schunard); Sami Max (Alexi Darling, Mrs. Jefferson, Rogers Mom, others); Mackenzie Meadows (Maureen Johnson); Adriana Medina Santiago (Woman with Bags. Mimi's Mom, others); Alisa Melendez (Mimi Marquez); Liam Pearce (Gordon,others); Zachary Noah Piser (Mark Cohen); Matt Rodin (Roger Davis); Michael Schimmele (Paul, The Man, Mr. Jefferson, others).