This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Revisiting Rent, Jonathan Larson's 1990's East Village update of Puccini's La Boheme evokes strong emotions and memories, some good and some bad. One the many positive aspects of Rent that has survived the thirteen years since it debuted is the decision by the producers to sell the first two rows of tickets for only $20 in attempt to reach young theatergoers. This is the case this week at the current touring production at the Pantages Theatre and it was how I first saw Rent during its premiere run in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre back in 1997. My lasing memory of that performance was being overwhelmed by the energy of the show, especially the young actors in the LA cast, including Neil Patrick Harris in the role of Marc.
This touring version of Rent features three members of the original New York cast. Anthony Rapp, the original Marc, looks like he hasn't aged a bit (and sounds much the same as he did on the cast album); but his loft-mate Adam Pascal (who plays Roger) is getting a little long in the tooth to be playing a starving songwriter. What's more, he's often out of breath towards the end of his full-throated rock-ballads. The third original cast member, Gwen Stewart, plays a number of character roles and is a strong presence, but one has to be ask: why aren't the two original female leads, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Idina Menzel, reprising their roles on this tour? Lexi Lawson and Nicolette Hart acquit themselves as Mimi and Maureen, but this mix of new and old casting gives the whole show the feeling of an aging, rock band's reunion tour.
But then, Larson's musical was dated before it even opened back in 1996. As the show was extolling the open minds and hearts of alphabet city squatters on Broadway, 40 blocks away the policies of Giuliani and Clinton were changing the real East Village from a nest of artists and junkies and into a haven for bankers and dot-com millionaires. That said, the best musicals have always been best at recreating a state of mind rather than a factual place. The East Village of Larson's Rent is best viewed, like the Times Square of Guys and Dolls or the River City, Iowa of The Music Man, for what it evokes instead of what it documents.
And if the on-stage frisson that Larson conjured in the 1990's by melding present-day issues with contemporary music is now diminished, the passage of time allows us to see and hear how much of Rent has appreciated over the last decade and a half.
"Light My Candle" and "Tango: Maureen" remain dynamic and witty numbers, sounding as if they were out of a Cole Porter musical. "Out Tonight" and "La Vie Bohème" also bristle with an energy and vibrancy that still resonates, regardless of how many times they've been sung. In short, much of the first act of Rent, is better than anything that has been seen on Broadway since (its worth noting that it was the last musical to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama).
The problem is the second act of Rent can't sustain the intensity and dramatic focus of what came before. Act Two feels like a rambling sequel to the events of that fateful Christmas Eve, rather than a wrapping up of its emotional and narrative strands. Also, the music in Act Two lacks bite. Besides reprises of the first act's numbers and a tendency to fall back on "Seasons of Love" the big, fuzzy anthem that opens the second act, Rent limps to its improbable finale rather than achieving the blaze of glory that Act One finishes with.
In this way, Rent is as frustrating as the era that it was created in: the 1990's. Like that decade, Rent is well-meaning, intelligent, exciting, sensitive, crowd-pleasing, and politically correct; but also alienating, derivative, name-dropping, calculating and yes, righteous. Like the American president who defined those years, Rent strains to feel our pain, the pain of all those suffering and transform that pain into big, noble "feel-good" energy.
Seen from the safe distance of a new century, Rent's ambitious agenda is too diffuse and broad. It can't help failing as a whole. Yet, the musical (and this production) still has moments, and not a just a few, that brilliantly convey the passions of the Clinton era and immortalizes in song a mythical American Bohemia that may have never really existed but that continues to look and sound as if it just flickered out.
Rent runs at the Pantages Theatre through March 8.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Photos: Joan Marcus