Revisiting Rent on its 20th Anniversary Tour

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At the end of Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent, Mark Cohen sings:

December 24th, 10 p.m.. Eastern Standard Time.
I can’t believe a year went by so fast
Time to see, what we have time to see...

For the 30- and 40-somethings in Overture Hall last night, seeing the twentieth anniversary non-Equity tour of the once groundbreaking show, it was tempting to wonder how two decades “went by so fast.” And it was “time to see” how the soundtrack of our youth held up, in this post-millennium world.

Granted, the era of answering machines, payphones, and filmmakers using actual cameras with film inside seems quaint, and a little archaic now. But the bigger question was, does Rent still have “the power to ignite the air?” Do the characters resonate with audiences? Does the show still say something important?  

From my perspective the answer is yes. And no.

Larson’s somewhat autobiographical story, loosely based on the Puccini opera La Boheme, is the tale of struggling artists desperate to make their mark, or even be heard at all. It is one that every generation can identify with. And there is a reason that plays, movies, and books frequently focus on people in this stage of life — they are full of angst and over-sized emotion. They are on the verge of discovering themselves, and frequently falling in and out of love. They are making their first bold decisions that will help determine the rest of their lives. There is no more exciting or terrifying time, for most of us, so living those days vicariously is an adrenaline rush. In other words, it’s great subject matter for big stories, including Rent.

Rent is also about shining a light on people who weren’t really acknowledged by most of the country, and certainly weren’t seen on many stages in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In the era of dot coms and yuppies and institutional homophobia, it was remarkable to present sympathetic young characters who were ethnically diverse, gay and straight, anything but upwardly mobilie, and dying of AIDS.

Perhaps most important of all, Rent is about empathy and acceptance, which is a message we’re still sorely in need of, as hate groups flourish, affordable health care is in jeopardy, the chasm between the haves and the have-nots widens, and LGBT rights are being stripped away, both locally and nationally.

Like Phantom of the Opera, which also took a victory lap tour recently, the music of Rent is dated. It sounds very “of its moment,” but that’s true of a lot of musicals (heck, it’s the reason for the success of a lot of jukebox musicals) and doesn’t diminish the accomplishment of the score and lyrics. Some of the pieces sound like radio pop, but some are complex and quite moving. To my ears, “La Vie Boheme” still feels as rebellious and celebratory now as it did when the musical debuted.

So with its good qualities intact, I can also say that this touring cast did a lackluster job of recreating the energy, urgency, and magic of the original Rent. And becuase of that, this version did not feel relevant. The young ensemble seemed both emotionally disconnected from the material, and doggedly determined to put their own vocal spins on each song so they would not sound like the Broadway cast album that so many of us listened to on CD for years on end. Sometimes it was interesting, but mostly it was distracting and detracted from the beauty of the music itself.

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As Roger, Kaleb Wells was the most extreme offender on both counts—inexplicably angry and off-putting for the entire show, his singing/screaming vocal stylings obliterated any subtlety that the role contains. As the ingénue Mimi, Skyler Volpe worked very hard to seem sexy as she writhed on the catwalk “like a cat in heat,” but never quite got there. There was also little chemistry between her and Wells. As frustrated filmmaker Mark Cohen, Sammy Ferber looked like a round faced, suburban high school student who was terribly miscast. And understudy Yael Reich’s take on Maureen was much more cheerleader than performance artist, making her sound silly.

As the sassy, cross-dressing drummer Angel, Aaron Alcaraz did a much better job with this pivotal role. An energetic and accomplished dancer, he brought both the necessary comedy and gravity to the part. Likewise, it was a pleasure to watch Jasmine Easler tangoing across the stage as Joanne, the type A lawyer who has an on-again, off-again romance with Maureen. She also had one of the strongest voices in the ensemble, which she used to great effect.

Rent debuted at a time when I had just started working professionally in theater. The show, that now seems so tame, shocked my 20-something self, but it also spoke to me. I had read about Act Up demonstrations and I personally knew actors who were dying of AIDS. With my master's degree in hand, I was making $300 a week at an arts organization (half of which went to pay my rent) because it was my passion. I had no idea if I could make it a career, or if I’d ever realize my dream of having a play produced. My relationship with Rent will always be deeper because I identified with it so much initially. But I believe that good productions of Rent still have a lot to say, no matter what the age or experience of the viewer.