Some believe that if we keep people who have died in our thoughts and words then they are not really dead. Well, if so, then last night lights were blazing and the world was happily peopled by our many friends and family members lost to AIDS. RENT came to town for its Twentieth Anniversary Tour and what a marvel of a resurrection!
Opening night, every time a character was first introduced on stage, he or she was received with almost rock star hysteria. It wasn’t because these were well-known stars of stage or screen. The audience went wild because many were revisiting the show as die hard fans. Many knew the songs from the 2005 film perhaps. The characters themselves have become icons.
Let me first make a disclaimer: I am not a RENT-head. I never slept on the sidewalk to get into the original show on Broadway. I don’t sing all the tunes. Truth be known, I have never seen it live, although I am not sure how I could have missed it. Nevertheless, I was a little apprehensive that the show might seem dated.
The brilliant casting of these young performers, many of whom rocketed with this contract into their first national tour, electrified the audience. These guys are not only talented singers, actors, and in many cases, dancers, but they are gorgeously diverse in size, shape, and color. Most of all, they are young, reckless, and hungry, and that’s exactly what the show is about and what a production of RENT needs.
The show is about a group of friends, mostly squatters, in a building on the Lower East Side of New York City. It takes place during a time when people lived crazily on the edge, oblivious to the perils of excess: drugs, group sex, what we now call gender preference “fluidity,” and beyond-experimental performance art were all going on. The show has the nitty-gritty feel of what was “real” on the streets of New York.
Jonathan Larson, the supremely talented artist who with his Book, Lyrics, and Music captured all this like lightning bugs in a jar, first lit up The New York Theatre Workshop and then Broadway with his work. RENT remains “the” musical of its time, winning all kinds of awards, and remains the eleventh longest running show on Broadway. To the making of the work, there was the added wrenching story that Larson died of an aortic dissection, unrelated to AIDS, just prior to the off-Broadway premiere at Jim Nicola’s New York Theatre Workshop. A tragic irony is that, unlike AIDS in early 1996, an aortic dissection was not necessarily a death sentence if timely and properly treated.
The set, exposing the stage back to the brick walls, is a fabulous aerial junkyard designed by Paul Clay made up of bicycle parts, bits of fire escapes, metal fencing, and a familiar New York loft section under which sits the lean five-man electronic orchestra. One side wall is piled with two or three piled up rows of giant speakers.
RENT is a great rock musical, but its richness comes from the variety of its music. There’s an amusing tango, danced and sung by Mark (Danny Harris Kornfeld) and his ex-girlfriend’s new girlfriend Joanne (played with authority and humor opening night by Alia Hodge.) A gorgeous love-duet,“I’ll Cover You,” sung in the first act by Angel (David Merino) and Tom Collins (Aaron Harrington) is reprised in Act II as a sad introspective tribute by Collins at his lover’s impromptu memorial.
Another love duet that is especially deft pays tribute to the entrance scene of Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème, the opera on which this show is loosely based. This Mimi (Skyler Volpe) can move from being a vulnerable and tender young woman to a strung out, desperate junkie all in the space of the song “Light My Candle,” and she both disarms and rattles Roger (Kaleb Wells) who has a secret of his own.
The seven-person chorus, in addition to adding great harmonic richness to the company numbers, delivers periodic Christmas jingles and odd sung snippets of voice mail, all adding to the dense aural textures of New York City.
There’s a rule in American musicals that you can’t pack in too many new songs and be successful. Well, Larson broke that one. There are over 20 listed songs in the first act alone. Just when you think the songwriter may have run out of juice, he brings the audience back for the top of Act II and delivers “Seasons of Love,” the best known song of the show and a great emotional anthem.
closes June 25, 2017
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Every one of these singer-actors just goes for it on their individual numbers and it’s hard to isolate and give favor when the ensemble is so strong and true. Katie Lamark as Maureen delivers one of the funniest acted songs I’ve seen in her performance art as “protest” called “Over the Moon.” (Her role was originated by the vocal-chords-of-steel Idina Menzel, and in some of Lamark’s other singing I could already hear some wear-and-tear. Word to young singers, don’t try this at home.)
Merino packs some serious extra voltage and can leap, strut, twirl, and twerk around the stage while winning us all over with his joyous delivery of “Today 4 U.” He’s got the smile and winsomeness of a young Judy Garland and the take-no-prisoners attitude, bling and dynamism of Prince.
Kaleb Wells as Roger, the guitar-playing, song-making pivotal character in the story is a rock star indeed. He’s got the burning gaze, stringy hair half-hiding his face, caved-in bird chest posture of an intense artist. Whether squealing, or pushing and building that raw guttural sound to an angry metallic breaking point, or pulling back into a power ballad, he seems both totally emotionally connected and yet in control of his instrument.
Most of all I love the layering in the songs of the separate stories morphing into multiple meanings. “Contact” is a company number that seems to start out like an angry storming of a fence by protesters but quickly becomes a kind of raw S&M show while under a massive parachute of a bedsheet group sex erotica takes place. From this white cloud Merino emerges at the top, a human projectile both floating and writhing. The whole scene seems to become his wet dream perhaps, then his hallucinogenic trip from the drugs he’s taking, and finally we understand it’s Angel’s final ride crossing over.
Similarly “Goodbye Love” paints both an auditory and visual experience of the many kinds of goodbyes we must all go through to experience love, community, and intimate connection.
The lights by Jonathan Spencer and costumes by Angela Wendt fill the stage with color and dazzling changes. The rock band orchestra of five, led by Samuel Bagalà, also gets all the colors captured by the show’s remarkable creator.
Director Evan Ensign has taken Michael Greif’s original direction and together with Marlies Yearby’s superb choreography have made this show a seamless ensemble piece.
Bad me, I haven’t given due to Danny Harris Kornfeld, who as Mark is a kind of Tony Kushner narrating character at the center of Larson’s work. It’s true, in the beginning he gets buried a little by the more flamboyant and fuller-voiced compadres. But he comes into focus with both his story and his steely emotional focus.
By the time the orchestra is pulling out strains of Puccini’s La Bohème and Roger is screaming “Mimi,” my soul has been rocked. There’s only one week of this terrific production. Hey RENT-heads, I’ll see you camping out with me on the cement in front of the National Theatre.
RENT. Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Evan Ensign based on the Original Direction by Michael Greif. Music Supervision and additional Arrangements by Tim Weil. Conducted by Samuel Bagalà, Set designed by Paul Clay. Lighting Design by Jonathan Spencer. Costume Design by Angela Wendt. Choreography by Marlies Yearby. With Bryson Bruce, Ashley de la Rosa, Jasmine Easler, Tim Ehrlich, Sammy Ferber, Aaron Harrington, Paola V. Hernandez, Alia Hodge, Danny Harris Kornfeld, Katie Lamark, Jordan Long, Michael McClure, Timothy McNeill, David Merino, Cameron Mullin, Futaba Shioda, Christian Thompson, Skyler Volpe, Kaleb Wells, and Alexis Louise Young. Presented by The National Theatre. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.