La Vie Boheme is not mort. On the contrary, it is shiny and perky as all get out.
That could be a problem for those who consider Rent, the late Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking 1996 rock musical, a gritty yet ultimately hopeful tribute to young people struggling to survive in the bohemian squatter scene of New York’s East Village neighborhood on Alphabet City in the 1990s under the specter of HIV/AIDS. He based his musical on Puccini’s La Boheme, only with an upbeat twist to the climactic death scene (SPOILER ALERT).
Larson died at age 36 of an undiagnosed medical condition before opening night of Rent (like the characters he wrote about, Larson did not have health insurance) but his musical went on to win Tonys and the Pulitzer, played 12 years on Broadway and was made into a movie in 2005.
The semi-live (more on that in a bit) production was taped at Fox Studios, but it could have come straight out of the Disney clubhouse. The cast is glossy and squeaky clean and seem to have emerged from a theme park rather than grimy, damp industrial spaces with spotty electricity on Avenue A.
Mimi (Tinashe), the tragic heroine and the love interest of mopey musician Roger (Brennin Hunt), is the most wholesome drug addict and S&M club dancer you’d ever want to meet—glowing with health and positivity despite living outdoors during a cold New York winter and whose HIV status requires regular doses of AZT.
Likewise, Maureen (Vanessa Hudgens), the archly arty performance artist, has that gung-ho outlook you associate with the Bring It On movie franchise. She cutely wiggles her booty in black patent leather pants and cavorts around with High School Musical fervor. Not a trace of wit or New York attitude. The show’s idea of edgy involves Maureen smooching and canoodling with her equally headstrong girlfriend Joanne (Kiersey Clemons, striking and sure in her all-too-brief solos) and the camera zooms in for close-ups to verify, yes they really are kissing, that have a puerile, Peeping Tom creepiness about them.
Good lord, even the show’s resident drag queen Angel (Valentina), the big-hearted love of equally sweet-souled Tom (Brandon Dixon Victor, who played Aaron Burr in a little show called Hamilton and hails from Gaithersburg, Md.) waves pom-poms and executes side jumps like she’s trying out for the pep squad. Again, not a hint of irony or street cred.
Similarly, love and attraction abound in Rent, but the chemistry between the couples is nil, except for Angel and Tom, who seem devoted and crazy about one another. As for the musical’s central love story, Mimi and Roger could be exchanging ATM codes rather than coos and there is way too much pretty boy posing on Roger’s part.
About that semi-live: During a weekend dress rehearsal, Brennin Hunt broke his ankle, but Fox announced the show must go on. The cast performed in front of a live audience, as expected, but Hunt was in a wheelchair and it was more of a concert version. What TV viewers saw was another taped dress rehearsal (what, no understudies for Hunt? Tsk.) and about 20 minutes of live performance, which included a reprise of “Seasons of Love” that featured the original Broadway cast (who showed the young’uns how it is done).
Maybe it’s youth, maybe it’s nerves, but it was painfully obvious who in the cast has stage experience and who does not. Vanessa Hudgens appears comfortable in an ensemble piece, and she has Broadway musical experience, and one can only assume she was instructed to be the sincerest performance artist in town.
Brandon Dixon Victor is confident and giving, trying to tell a story rather than performing, but he seemed to be out there trying all alone. Again, it could be lack of experience, but the rest of the cast was just singing the notes and the lyrics and going through the motions. They didn’t seem to have much sense of what Larson’s nuanced lyrics were saying—they were just strings of words to get through.
The cast showed much flash and physical beauty, but no depth. However, the ensemble chorus work was excellent, and the singers were engaged and invested in Larson’s score and meaning.
Despite this amateurish effort, Rent emerges from the lukewarm waters unscathed. Larson’s musical may be about a specific place and time, but its message to remember in love, live in love, is as urgent and fresh as ever.