#103. I’ve seen the movie RENT. I’ve listened to my friends belt out RENT show tunes at Sidetracks. And I’ve certainly known my share of artists struggling to pay the rent.
American Theater Company, in conjunction with About Face Theatre, presents RENT. It’s East Village in NYC circa 1990. A bunch of bohemians are living their art but they’re having troubles paying their bills. A filmmaker, a musician, a dancer, a philosopher, a drag queen, and a performing artist are a padlock away from joining the homeless on the streets. They unite in protest against their landlord. They are free spirits. They want to be uninhibited by financial, health, and relational complications. Before the yuppie invasion in East Village, RENT pays tribute to the artists that didn’t sell out but eventually had to move out of the neighborhood.
Composer and Playwright Jonathan Larson hit it big with this Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, RENT. Larson re-imagined the opera, “Le Boheme” as a contemporary rock musical. As art imitates life, RENT reflected Larson’s personal hardship in making a living out of his talent. And as life imitates art, Larson died of an aortic dissection the night before the off-Broadway opening. Porchlight Musical Theatre is also currently chronicling Larson’s life with the RENT prequel “tick, tick…BOOM!” So, this RENT experience is enhanced with my appreciation for Larson’s growth in musical composition.
The well-known “Seasons of Love” is one of many unforgettable and beautiful songs. The ensemble poignantly comes together in a harmonious chorus. There is plenty of powerhouse singing led by pitch-perfect Alex Agard (Collins). Agard and the hilariously moxie-charged Esteban Andres Cruz (Angel) are simplistically beautiful in “I’ll Cover You.” All the couples provide memorable duets. A liberally-animated Aileen May (Maureen) and a sensibly-frustrated Lili-Anne Brown (Joanne) are super-charged emotional in “Take me or leave me.” The dynamic pairing of Grace Gealey (Mimi) and Derrick Trumbly (Roger) deliver a range of passion from flirty to sexy to hostile to tender. And the man behind the camera, an unrecognizable, bushy-bearded Alan Schmuckler (Mark) narrates and tangos with authority. I enjoyed the entire RENT ensemble. And even though they made me want to tear up my mortgage and join the artistic revolution, their space wasn’t quite right for me.
Director David Cromer stages the show with depth –figuratively and width-literally. The emotional action is horizontally stretched across the theatre. The audience is seated on two parallel sides. I’m seated at floor level. On occasion, the proximity is very close. In fact, Roger basically tucked a discarded shoe prop underneath my chair. I could have scooted my chair into the group therapy scene. And when the lesbian couple fought, I felt uncomfortably intrusive. This RENT is at its best with these profoundly personal moments. It’s this kind of ongoing intimacy that is missing consistently by Cromer’s set-up. Powerful scenes lose something taking place on the endcaps of the large stage space. Four structural poles obstruct the view. And the audience connection is momentarily severed depending on your viewpoint.
Still, it’s RENT time. You should pay up and get your bohemian on! Out of the five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes this year, one hundred and sixty-five minutes of it should be spent on the kind of RENT that makes you remember the artist inside.
Production photograph courtesy of Michael Brosilow.
Running Time: Two hours and forty-five minutes includes an intermission.
At American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron
Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by David Cromer
Musical direction by Timothy Splain
Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays at 8pm
Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm
Sundays at 2pm
Extended Thru July 1st
Buy Tickets at www.atcweb.org