The rent is late. No one’s got a job. No one can afford health insurance, and someone has contracted HIV/AIDS. The circumstances faced by the friends in Rent were as urgent in 1996 as they are now. Jonathon Larson’s piece, which won him a posthumous Pulitzer and scads of Tony awards, is still relevant and electrifying theater 13 years after its Broadway opening. And now that it has come to a city that the Washington Post tells us has an HIV/AIDS rate higher than West Africa’s, it’s an even more important story to tell.
This breakthrough musical is an adaptation of Puccini’s La Boheme. Rent recounts the lives of a group of struggling artists in New York’s Lower East Side. (Think Doc Martins and drag queens.) The show begins and ends at Christmastime, and runs through a year of trying to salvage relationships despite overwhelming threats. As central characters Mark Cohen and Roger Davies sing in “What You Own,” it’s a show about the ways that art and family can fight isolation and alienation – and the joys of wearing mismatched clothes.
Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, who revive their Broadway roles as Mark and Roger, are the biggest focus of the evening. Touring productions rarely feature the same voices as those on the original cast recording and their presence was quite a treat for many of Thursday night’s adoring fans. The enthusiasm for Rapp was well deserved; he brings a humble reverence to the show that make it more about shedding light on an important story and less about reprising a famed role. Pascal, on the other hand, relying on a voice that has stayed in better shape than his spirit, appeared to be going through the motions in the role he used to play. (His character’s relationship with Mimi Marquez, played by a melodramatic Lexi Lawson didn’t help the cause). But everyone cheered for him anyway. And he appeared to suspect that they would.
Watching this tour’s performance, it seems like the story has gotten a little lost behind its overwhelming popularity. The show is so masterfully written (and so widely adored) that its score alone provokes manic ovations. Sometimes, however, the emotional complexity of its book gets lost behind attempts to replicate something that’s already succeeded. The build-ups to the deaths of two central characters, for example, are treated as routinely as some of the bigger, well, routines, and undercut many of the more poignant and miraculous moments of the play.
But the performers who stand out next to Rapp – Nicolette Hart as Maureen Johnson, Justin Johnston as Angel, Michael McElroy as Tom Collins, and Crystal Monée Hall as Mrs. Jefferson and Others (an understudy) – manage to truly make the show their own. Their performances are fresh and dangerous because they accompany ambitious arrangements with a truly conversational lyricism. Their impressive vocal flourishes come partnered with detailed emotional scoring, making each of their phrases musically distinct and part of a larger emotional narrative. Hart’s Maureen, which is at times a little too extreme, is certainly as fiercely sung as it is acted. Johnston’s “Today for You, Tomorrow For Me” stands out as a top performance, as does his duet with McElroy later in the first act. But McElroy carries the reprise of “I’ll Cover You” with a heart wrenching ferocity, and Hall joins him with an equally inconsolable force that make the song one of the most powerful numbers in the show.
The tremendous vocal power of the cast and the energy at the Warner Theatre easily overpowers the shortcomings of some of less than fine-tuned moments onstage, and the musical still resonates with a heart-stopping vigor. It earns its cult status. It is absolutely a thrill for the audience to watch – perhaps one of the only legal highs it can truthfully claim.
Rent: The Broadway Tour
Book, music and lyrics by Jonathon Larson
Directed by Michael Greif
Produced at the Warner Theatre
Reviewed by Miranda Hall