I caught the last show of the Rent 20th anniversary tour last weekend. Watching Larson’s musical today, where its setting, the East Village, Manhattan, is now a gentrified landscape of brunching, happy-hour going, twenty-somethings, it is impossible not to ask if the story of Rent is still relevant.
Sure, the residents of today’s East Village live in more comfortable, albeit expensive, and cramped apartments, and AIDS is no longer the epidemic it once was, but are young people in metropolises, like New York, L.A., or D.C., still struggling to ‘make it’ on their own terms? Are budding creatives still trying to be true to their art, and to avoid ‘selling out’? Of course they are. And the new-comer cast to this production of Rent is a prime example of youth finding their voices.
There were a few standouts who really made the show. David Merino, who played Angel, commanded the stage in every scene he was in. Surprisingly, he is still an undergraduate (!) at NYU’s Tisch School. He was the most engaging to watch, and I can see great success in his future in the musical theatre world.
Aaron Harrington, a “new-comer to the musical theatre stage”, according to his cast bio, who played Tom Collins, was a tremendous vocal talent. His voice was barely discernible from Wilson Jermaine Heredia’s, who portrayed the character in the 2005 movie. Santa Fe, and I’ll Cover You were two of the strongest songs in the show due to his lovely baritone voice.
A review of the show in the Chicago Tribune, complimented the shrewd marketing of the production, namely, the producers’ implication that this non-union show was somehow affiliated with the original. I have to admit that I was fooled. Upon hearing about Rent on tour from a friend (Thanks, Jeff!), I assumed that it was a commemoration, or a reunion of the original production. This marketing tactic seemed to work well, judging by the string of sold-out performances in D.C., and the tour’s many other stops.
I’m sure the social media signs in the lobby, and the twitter and Instagram handles scattered among the cast bios in the program helped build hype for the show’s millennial audience. I wouldn’t be surprised if similar social media stages start popping up in venues in New York’s theatre district soon (if they haven’t yet already). Not surprisingly, as we were leaving the theatre, there was an even longer line of audience members of all generations, waiting to snap their photos for Instagram.
Less than impressive parts of the Rent 20th anniversary tour included many of the scenes with Roger and Mimi, which felt overdone, and tonally off at times. In Would You Light My Candle, his rejections of her veered into aggression, as he physically pushed her away. There would have been a subtler way for his character to convey disinterest. The pair didn’t have the right chemistry, and I wasn’t always able to suspend my disbelief in them as confused young lovers. I wanted to like both performers’ singing, but in their respective solos, One Song Glory, and Out Tonight, both of them diverged from singing to screaming too often to overlook.
Jasmine Easler who played Joanne, had vocal talent, displayed nicely with Danny Kornfield Harris (Mark) in Tango Maureen. Harris was perfectly cast as Mark, and was able to ground some of the songs, like Tango, and What You Own. Jasmine’s voice, as well as Katie Lamark’s (Maureen) could have been showcased better had Take Me, or Leave Me been pulled back a few notches. The whole number was a powerhouse, but it would have been a more dramatic, emotional duet had the audience been able to feel the tension between them build. This was a trend throughout the performance: singing that veered toward overdrive. However, it didn’t appear that the audience minded.
Despite these shortcomings, the audience’s approval was palpable. Undoubtedly, fans of the original production, and millennials who enjoyed the 2005 movie were pleased with this 20th anniversary remake. It was fun to witness that energy, from clapping and whistling after every score, to the audience participation in the Seasons of Love finale. I hadn’t experienced a musical theatre production where I felt, at times, like I was at a concert. That level of engagement wasn’t easy to cultivate, and sustain throughout the show, and for doing so I commend the cast of Rent.