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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 3 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 31
Rent, controlled
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Rent, controlled

5th Avenue's 're-envisioning' is a little too cool

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

RENT
5TH AVENUE THEATRE
Through August 19


When Rent first opened on Broadway in 1996, it took the world by storm. Not since Hair had there been such an original musical - one that reflected current events and resonated with an entire global generation. Loud, raw, and unapologetic, Rent changed the face of musical theater so much that it won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And now it has returned to Seattle, landing at the 5th Avenue Theatre where it has been re-envisioned for the 21st century.

The story revolves around two best friends who are squatting in an abandoned warehouse on New York City's Lower East Side. Homelessness, AIDS, and the faltering world economy are becoming frequent news items. Mark is a filmmaker living on the outskirts of his own life so that he can document the fast-changing world around him. Roger is a musician and former junkie searching for that elusive hit song. Mark and Roger's circle of friends includes Collins, a free-floating philosophy professor living with HIV, who finds his new love, Angel, a drag queen who is also HIV-positive, playing the drums as a street performer; Maureen, Mark's ex-girlfriend, who is currently involved with Joanne, an Ivy League-type lawyer; Mimi, a club dancer who lives above the boys and is HIV-positive and a heroin addict; and Benny, the boys' former roommate (and Mimi's ex-boyfriend) who married wealthy and is living a comfortable life. This urban family shares its joys and troubles through life and death in the complicated world around them.

The voices are all strong and clear, and handle the lyrics and music well. There are some definite standout performances here and they are easily recognized. Angel, played wonderfully by Jerick Hoffer, is easily the scene-stealer. Drag comes naturally to Hoffer (who performs locally at Julia's on Broadway), and this definitely adds to the believability and vulnerability of the character. Mimi (Naomi Morgan) is the rebellious drug-addicted dancer. Her voice easily handles the range of her songs, from the raging 'Take Me Out Tonight' to the soft and touching ballad 'Without You.' Her petite physical size emphasizes her character's vulnerability, and she uses it to her best advantage. Maureen (Ryah Nixon) is another character the audience can't help but watch. With her fierce yet bubbly personality, she takes control of her every scene.

Unfortunately, the other characters just seem to 'be there' on stage. All their voices are good, but Roger (Aaron Finley) seems to think that angst can only be expressed as anger, and he snarls and barks his lines in a consistently one-note fashion. Mark (Daniel Berryman), the filmmaker, plays the outside observer so well that the audience tends to not even notice him. Both are solid performances, but not enough to carry the musical as the two alleged leads.

Which brings us to this matter of 're-envisioning.' (Warning: Possible spoilers ahead.) Rent is 16 years old and is itself a re-envisioning of the 1896 Puccini opera La Boheme. This production isn't so much a re-envisioning as it is a restaging. Most of the changes and new additions are minor, but some deserve mention. Having Angel move silently among her friends during the funeral scene (reprising 'I'll Cover You') was very poignant, giving both sides the chance to say goodbye. It's a beautiful scene on its own, and this addition made it even more heartfelt. While those familiar with it will miss Mimi's fire-escape dance number, the replacement of her addiction scene does justice to the character's nature. The entire cast also stays on stage, sitting on the sidelines (reminiscent of Spring Awakening) when not in the scene, which was completely incidental.

Several new things didn't work so well, however. During the ballads the ensemble cast did interpretive dances, which detracted from the beauty of the songs. In Angel's hospital death scene, she appears in full drag when her boy persona (as is usual for this scene) would give off so much more vulnerability and would allow the audience to empathize more strongly. Also, for a group of friends on the Lower East Side, racial minorities are not well-represented - highly unusual (and ironic) both for this production and for the 5th Avenue. Plus, they all seem to have PER-FECT DIC-SHUN with EveRY Sen-TENCE - unlikely for a motley group of Lower Manhattanites. Another problem, not specifically with this production but with the whole idea of restaging Rent, is that today's 20-to-30-year-old actors did not live through the first years of the AIDS epidemic (at least not as adults) and thus face a challenge in conveying the fear, panic, and sheer horror the disease left in its wake before medical advances made it somewhat manageable. Anyone attempting to re-create this era onstage would be well-advised to do some in-depth research into the social and scientific landscape of the time.

Ultimately, the main issue with this performance is the fact that it is a performance. The audience never gets invested in the characters - we are too distracted by the 'show.' The voices, the staging, and (of course) the music, lyrics, and story are all good, but unfortunately the cast too often doesn't emote any real feeling and the play's emotional impact is seriously diluted as a result.

Rent first opened Off-Broadway, moving to the Nederlander Theatre in April 1996. It ran for more than 5,120 performances and was nominated for 10 Drama Desk Awards, winning six (including Outstanding Musical), and 10 Tony Awards, winning five (including Best Musical). Rent also won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming only the eighth musical in history to do so. The 2005 movie version included all but two of the original principal cast members reprising their roles. There is also a filmed 2008 Broadway performance available on video.

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