Wednesday, March 13, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 146, A Review: "Rent" (The Bushnell)

By James V. Ruocco

The lyrics for "Rent" are unmistakably familiar, catchy, inspiring, and still relevant, 23 years later.

"There's only us, there's only this.
Forget regret, or life is your's to miss.
No other path, no other way.
No day but today"

"How do you document real life
When real life's getting more like fiction each day?
Headlines, bread-lines blow my mind
And now this deadline, eviction or pay rent"

"Five hundred twenty-five thousand Six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure - measure a year?
In daylights - in sunsets
In midnights - in cups of coffee
In inches - in miles
In laughter - in strife"

And well, they should be....

"Rent" was...."Rent" is...."Rent" remains the celebrated, iconic work of  Jonathan Larson, the 35-year-old composer/lyricist and author who died of an aortic aneurysm on January, 25, 1996, just days before his exhilarating, ground-breaking rock opera made its official big debut off-Broadway to heightened fanfare and subsequently, was later transferred to Broadway in April of the same year, where, it became the "Hamilton" of its day.

Of course, this came as no surprise to anyone in the cast, in the audience, in the producer's chair or on the creative team.

Back then, the two-act musical, which won the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical and Best Musical Score, among others, transformed the face of musical theater with its unexpectedly catchy, musical score of salsa, reggae, opera, electric rock, pop and Sondheim-tinged eclecticism. Its complicated, angst-filled story of gay and straight characters fighting for life and survival in N.Y's bohemian milieu of St. Mark's Place, was fueled with grit, hope, pulse, desire and unabashed vitality. And when the "Rent" cast stood on the edge of the proscenium stage facing the audience at the start of Act II and sang the soul-searching "Seasons of Love," a tearful reminder of living and measuring life on borrowed time, your heart just about broke and broke....and broke.

I remember it well
Sitting there on the aisle, fifth row orchestra center at the Nederlander Theatre, just two days after its big Broadway bow, I remember thinking, "How lucky am I to be sitting here watching this musical event unfold" and..."How lucky are those people on stage ...Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Idina Menzel, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Fredi Walker, Taye Diggs, Jesse L. get to do something as wonderful and exciting as this eight times a week."

Twenty-three years later, "Rent" still works and reworks that same theatrical magic on today's adrenaline-fueled audience as it did for first-nighter's on 79 East Fourth St in the East Village and at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway. The cast is new. The production is new. The sets, the sound and the lighting are new. The costumes are new.
But make no mistake, this is "Rent" the way it was meant to be all its colorful, gritty, heartfelt, cinematic-like glory. It snaps. It pops. It entices. It invigorates. It gets the pulses racing.

One major difference, however.

This time around, however, the audience.....well, at least 85 percent of them, anyway... come to "Rent" knowing every song and lyric, every line of dialogue, every characterization, every plot twist, every heartbreak, every revelation, every drum roll, every tick, every kick, every beat, every nuance, every dance move, every shock and every surprise. They also know all the inhabitants of Larson's colorful East Village bohemia (artists, drag queens, drug addicts, homosexuals, lesbians, songwriters, dancers, filmmakers, homeless people and those living with HIV) and how they evolve during both Act I and II.
But it doesn't really matter. When the house lights dim, they are ready to take hold of "Rent" lock, stock and barrel. They applaud all their entrances and exits. They sing out loud. They laugh, they cry, they jump out of their seats. They shout the names of the characters. They lose control when their favorite moment comes. They go absolutely crazy when a song starts or finishes.

Some are actors, Broadway groupies, college students, homosexuals, high school students, drag queens, transgenders, pink-haired lesbians, business executives, fresh-scrubbed kids or just die hard theater buffs who live, eat and breathe theatre. And let's not forget those mad but merry RENT-heads, who still follow the show from city to city and have seen "Rent" more than 500 times (the stage musical, the 2005 film adaptation and the recent-not-so-live "Rent Live!" on Fox Television). They set the tone for the entire LIVE performance. They encourage the on-stage actors to pump things up and get ready to go. And then, it happens. "Rent" begins. "Rent" entices.  "Rent" explodes. And, what an explosion it is.


At the Bushnell, the 2019 National Touring edition of  "Rent" more than delivers its emotional wallop of snap, dazzle, crackle and pop. It works everyone on stage and off into a fervent, often playful lather of invigoration and delirium, which, when you think about it, is probably what Larson envisioned all along. It stands the testament of time as it deals openly and creatively with stories about addiction, eviction, materialism, struggle, legacy, sexual identity, transgender activism, death, poverty, individualism, urban redevelopment and AIDS. Its raw adult language ( "fucking weird," "fucking bitch," "dildo," "clit club," for example)  hits hard and home without hesitation. The characters are full-bodied and reflective of their East Village milieu. Nothing is taken for granted or thrown in to knock the audience off balance or on its ass. It is full of life...and then some.

The actual Bushnell space, which houses 3,707 people, is big, grand and splendid. Here, "Rent" is larger-than-life and thrusts itself forward in a 3-D cinematic style not found in smaller theaters where the two-act musical has played before. For this go-round, "Rent" swirls and twirls in glorious Technicolor. It's still the same story, but the lights, the sound, the scene changes, the songs and the individual scenes are so stunning to watch (think spectacle), there are times when you wish you could hit "rewind" and watch them again and again..

That said, this "Rent" is not a copycat, paint-by-numbers incarnation of the original 1996 Broadway musical conceived by Michael Greif or its 1998 London/West End counterpart. Here, "Rent" director Evan Ensign isn't interested in dusting off the blueprints of those two works to the point where his version of "Rent" is nothing more than a nostalgic, affectionate tribute to times long gone by. Instead, he puts his own thrilling, unique stamp on the new production without resorting to overkill or updating any of the dialogue, which every RENT-head in the audience could recite verbatim. He changes some of the original stage movement because  this is 2019 and not 1996, so that's to be expected. He thrusts the action forward at a much brisker pace. He brings some of the upstage action downstage, a directorial conceit that makes it much more effective for both actor and audience. He also respects and understands each of the characterizations that Jonathan Larson created and only fleetingly, makes a minor tweak or two with some of the core characters.

Elsewhere, he lovingly preserves some of the original staging created by Greif, most noticeable in the pulsating opening "Rent" production number, the "Light My Candle" exchanges, the wickedly feverish "La Vie Boheme," which closes Act I and "What You Own," a catchy character-driven duet  between Mark and Roger in the middle of Act II.
Marlies Yearby's crazed and frenzied dance movement and choreography ("Tango Maureen," "Today 4 U," "Out Tonight," "La Vie Boheme") provides the necessary pulse, momentum and spirit to get the juices flowing. It is energetic. It is modern. It  fits perfectly into the dramatic spine of the story. Now and then, things are purposely amped up keep "Rent" fresh and exciting, but Yearby's choices, nonetheless, reflect the intentions and concept thrust forward by the show's originators.

Directorially, Ensign also brings an unabashed playfulness and zesty spin to "Rent's" many verbal and musical voice mails, phone calls and celebratory pronouncements, all of which are effectively staged and performed by members of the ensemble cast who tackle many, many different roles (waiters, parents, cops, bohemians, life support members, squatters, to name a few) and costume changes with the creative genius and passion of those who originally created the roles or played them in other productions of "Rent" all around the world. They have fun. We have fun. No one flips through their playbills, checks their watches or looks confused by the onstage action. Ensign, as director, is at the top of his game, and it shows.

Then and now, the heart, drive and defining pulse of the show is Larson's inventive, intricate, character-driven musical score. His creative, definitive mix of anthems, duets, ballads, rock songs, plot-driven laments and lively showstoppers is unbeatable. "Rent," "One Song Glory," "Out Tonight," "I'll Cover You," "Take Me or Leave Me," "Another Day," "Without You," "Santa Fe," "Over the Moon," "What Your Own," "Tango Maureen," "Seasons of Love." The list goes on and on and on. And nothing gets lost in the translation. Larson's recurring themes: living on the edge, taking chances, fighting for survival, shielding loved ones from danger in the face of death and adversity are emotionally and melodically revisited by musical supervisor Tim Weil whose expert handling of the "Rent" material unfolds like great art that would make Larson ever-so-proud.

As "Rent" moves from scene to scene, Weil and his orchestral team are scrupulously attentive to Larson's music, the singers, the story and its rapid evolution. Here and there, they take risks with the tempos to give them a more contemporary feel. When necessary, they squeeze a little bit of extra pulp out of certain single phrases to make them more palpable. They also target certain songs with additional depth, beauty, confidence and flexibility. And, despite the show's familiarity, in everyone's more than capable hands, this incarnation of "Rent" sounds fresh, spunky, witty and surprisingly new.

Casting for the 2019 national tour is exceptional. For many "Rent" cast members, this is their first "on the road" experience. So yes, they want to thrill and electrify the audience, offer their own individual take on each of the now-iconic characters and when permissible, perhaps change a line of two to deliver uniquely different interpretations all together. At the Bushnell, the principal, supporting and ensemble cast members connect seamlessly.  They are young, intuitive, charismatic and diverse. They also represent the "Rent" milieu set forth by Jonathan Larson in terms of size, shape, gender, color and sexuality. They get "Rent." They understand "Rent." They are "Rent."

No one could play the part of relentless Jewish filmmaker Mark Cohen from Scarsdale like Anthony Rapp who created the role in the original 1996 Broadway production. That was a once-in-a-lifetime performance that has withstood the test of time. The good news about this "Rent" is that the very charismatic and personable Logan Marks opts not to copycat his predecessor. Like Danny Harris Kornfeld who played the part in the 2017 national touring company of "Rent," Marks steers clear of all things Rapp.  Instead, he offers his own take on Mark, his role in the evolution of the "Rent" story and his interaction with all of the other characters. It's a real, raw and energetic performance fraught with appropriate passion and emotion. He nails all of the familiar character traits that Larson set forth for Mark. He takes chances and runs with them. Vocally, he's pitch-perfect. His portrayal of Mark is so invigorating (he doesn't just play the part, he owns it), you are never once reminded that this iconic character was once played by Anthony Rapp in the original Broadway production and the 2005 film adaptation.

Is Javon King's sassy, sparkly and colorful portrayal of Angel, the young gay drag queen who is dying of AIDS as sensational as Wilson Jermaine Heredia who originated the role on Broadway and David Merino who played the same role in the 2017 touring edition of 'Rent?" You bet it is. As shaped and molded by King, it's a showstopping performance of high kicks, sentiment, individuality and transgender allure that the actor invests with dizzying dazzle, spirit and flamboyance. It's also a refreshingly unique conceit that King uses to full advantage throughout "Rent" and in his showstopping musical turns "Today 4 You" and "I'll Cover You." And yes, the audience is with him every step of the way. It's impossible not to love Angel.

A Jonathan Jackson type with a powerhouse singing voice that earns him thunderous applause
whenever he cuts loose vocally, Joshua Bess is the perfect fit for the part of the troubled singer/ songwriter Roger whose previous girlfriend committed suicide once she learned of her AIDS diagnosis. His anguished, emotional ballad "One Song Glory" is rendered with appropriate pain and pathos as is "What You Own," his big, fiery, harmonious duet with Mark in the middle of Act II.  Vocally, he's as dynamic as Adam Pascal was in the original 1996 Broadway production, using a crisp, polished musicality and confidence to sell every one of his songs. And just in case he should take a tumble down a stairwell or trip over a pile of props, understudies Chase McCall and Sean Ryan are waiting in the wings to fill his shoes as this is a LIVE production. Nothing pre-recorded here.

As Mimi, the drug stoked dancer with a heroin habit, Deri' Andrea Tucker is sexy, lively, slippery, sensuous and alluring. Dancing wise, she cuts all the right moves liked a skilled acrobat. Her singing, however, lacks an emotional depth and verve that is particularly noticeable in her wildly erotic solo "Out Tonight," which is designed solely to turn the head of every straight male in the audience, But sadly, it doesn't quite deliver. It's good, but not great. Elsewhere, she redeems herself much later with "Without You," a savvy duet with Roger that catches fire and melts your heart, the way it was intended. Her performance, as a whole, however, lacks the spunk, frenzy and hotness that Daphne Rubin-Vega and Renee Elise Goldsberry brought to the Broadway production and Skyler Volpe kept ablaze in the 2017 national tour.

Lencia Kebede and Lyndie Moe create all the right sparks as the touchy-feely lesbian couple Joanne and Maureen. They have plenty of earthy, sexually charged energy, power and charisma. Their big duet "Take Me or Leave Me" unfolds with enough sizzle and snap (kissing, ass-grabbing, breast-touching and simulated cunnilingus, to boot) to cause a power outage. "Over the Moon," Maureen's wonderfully wicked protest number is so unbelievably timed, both comically and vocally, it deserves a standing ovation in itself. And perhaps, an encore of sorts.
Devinre Adams, as Tom Collins, is both heartfelt and endearing as Angel's newfound boyfriend and lover. He plays the part with a sweet sincerity that works especially well. And when it comes time for him to sing his character's big Act II showstopper "I'll Cover You (Reprise)," Adams stops the show with this tear-drenched rendition. His serious vocal heft makes this particular song soar and wound with chilling resonance.  

Theatergoers, new to "Rent" will easily embrace this peppy, sensuous, hyperactive touring edition of the celebrated musical, which, in 2019 and long before that, has become its very own brand name. And why not? Its inspired enthusiasm extends far beyond the proscenium wall of the Bushnell stage with a sparkling urgency and command that's pretty hard to resist. The familiar story of East Village bohemia is inhabited by a new group of excited and energetic performers who live, eat, sleep and breathe "Rent." The musical score by the late Jonathan Larson is smooth, ragged, raw and emotional. It gets the juices flowing. It seduces and invigorates. It gets you thinking. It also makes you happy that you bought a ticket.
No broken foot or sound glitches here either (i.e., "Rent Live!"). First time, second time, 100th time, "Rent" still electrifies. What fun! What joy! What a resurrection! Bohemia, thank the Lord, is not dead. It's alive and well in Hartford, CT.

"There's only now, there's only here.
Give in to love or live in fear.
No other path, No other way
No day but today"

"Rent" is being staged at the Bushnell (166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, CT), now through March 17.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 987-5900.

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