New York City Theater
New World Stages, Off-Broadway
Still bristling with talent, still a heady mixture of the fresh and the familiar, of adolescence and maturity, ”Rent” has blown back into town. Now residing off-Broadway after its 12-year Main Stem run, Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize musical hasn’t lost its punch.
Paying homage to tradition by riffing on Puccini’s opera, “La Bohème” and still dealing with starving artists, “Rent” is a grungy piece of resistance against conformity. True, adolescent angst is nothing new, nor are struggling artists, the immediacy of infatuation nor rebelliousness.
But this epitome of all rock operas is something more. Its score is filled with memorable melodies, some of which echo Puccini. Two of its songs are particularly powerful: “Seasons of Love” and “Without You” are bound to make audiences weep.
Also, it manages to be terribly moving without being unbearably sentimental, with universality far beyond its various productions. And that’s not just because AIDS is still with us, and still killing people. “Rent” transcends its time, even our time, because it acknowledges the unknowability of existence.
Set in a year between two Christmases, a holiday of promises, it traces several love stories, one straight (between Mimi and Roger), two gay (Angel and Tom, Maureen and Joanne). In this plague year, characters fight, make up, are loyal, betray, take responsibility and turn their backs. Little is permanent. All is ephemeral.
“Forget regret, life is yours to live” and “No day but today” may resemble bumper stickers, yet, in context sound like fresh-minted discoveries.
This latest incarnation, off-Broadway where the show began in 1993 (it opened on Broadway in 1996, closing in 2008 after 5,124 performances) is close to the original without aping it. Again directed by Michael Greif, it has a striking, claustrophobic set by Mark Wendland, sharp-edged lighting by Kevin Adams and appropriately unromanticized costumes by Angela Wendt.
Its youthful cast stamps the characters with their own personalities: Adam Chandler-Berat, Matt Shingledecker, Nicholas Christopher, Corbin Reid, Arianda Fernandez, Analeigh Ashford and, especially MJ Rodriguez as the cross-dressing Angel are energetic. That some often can’t be understood may be a fault of the loud band and the amplification.
“How time flies when compassion dies,” goes one of the lyrics. Like all works of art, “Rent,” is both enduring and compassionate.
--David A. Rosenberg
--Aug. 23, 2011