1/27/2019        RENT                           Fox TV (Eventually On Demand, I presume)


***½  ( B ) 



Once again, I find myself writing about Rent, a show I hated when first it crushed my eardrums in an amped-beyond-the-pain-threshold touring production.  Through the years, I've gradually warmed to it to the point where I now look forward (with pleasure) to any new production.  I went into this one with mixed expectations – Fox’s record with “Live Musicals” is spotty at best, and I have truly hated their versions of some of my favorites.


True to expectations, I found myself shaking my head at many of the casting choices and performances, and smiling with the giddiest glee at some of the imaginative staging choices.


Welcome to Rent, Jonathan Larson’s ridiculously popular paean to ‘90’s artsy bohemianism. As I've already mentioned, it took me a long time to warm to this show -- I’ve found too many of its songs too forgettable, and its characters a tad too self-indulgent for my old-fart tastes (the memory of my own youthful self-indulgences having conveniently faded). Plot-wise, I’m not so much irritated by the fake-o “happy ending,” as much as unintentionally amused by its abruptness (coma to full recovery in less than five seconds is, you have to admit, giggle-inducing). Still and all, the score showed a boatload of potential cut short by Mr. Larson’s early death, a potential validated by the release of his earlier work in Tick, Tick, Boom (all of which, curiously enough, I find more memorable than any song from Rent.)

But you know what?  Maybe repetition is at the heart of appreciation, because, with every new viewing, I’m finding myself enjoying it more and more, finding new nooks of pleasure in some of its corners of understated emotional complexity, finding its songs more and more filling my head more often than should be necessary, finding the self-indulgence not so naïve and immature.


And, now that I look back on the original New York staging that so alienated me when I first saw the sound-set-to-bleeding-eardrums level of the tour that passed through Philadelphia, I can even wonder if my original dislike was more headache-induced than just-saw-something-I-didn't-like induced.


To recap the plot, Mark and Roger are young artists (Mark is a filmmaker, Roger a musician) sharing a loft in an abandoned Alphabet City industrial building. Their former friend (and current landlord), Benny, is threatening to evict them until they come up with some rent, unless they can forestall a planned demonstration in the homeless tent-city next door. The demonstration is being organized by performance artist Maureen, (Mark’s former lover), and her new love interest, Joanne. Another friend, Tom Collins, experiences a brutal beating, and is cared for by a street-drummer/drag-queen named Angel, who becomes the group’s guardian angel. Maureen’s demonstration comes and goes with unexpected results, and we spend Act Two following a year in the lives of this group as they face 525,600 minutes of unexpected successes, failures, deaths, break-ups, and reconciliations.

Loosely based on Puccini’s La Boheme, Rent trades in Tuberculosis for AIDS, but retains the Bohemian “No Day but Today” seize-the-moment philosophy, celebrating artists’ lives, complete with their idealistic pretensions, and brink-of-poverty day-to-day struggles. The script even keeps the opera’s “Mimi,” making her an exotic dancer junkie in a love/need relationship with Roger. As in the opera, the characters all show multiple levels of affection, need, drive, courage, and disappointment. None of them can be pushed into a convenient stereotype, all of them come alive on stage.


In fact, the “No Day but Today” philosophy is made more urgent here by the play’s AIDS plotline, and edge-of-poverty desperate moments.  This isn’t a youthful “seize the day” idealism, but a “this could be your last day” reality.


As I said in many prior reviews, I am finding the show more and more enjoyable as time goes on, as it becomes an early-nineties period piece. Numbers like “One Song Glory,” “Light my Candle,” “Today 4 U,” “Tango: Maureen,” "Seasons of Love," “Take me or Leave me,” and “I’ll Cover You” all stick with me. Even “Without You” is becoming less irritating and clichéd. And, the finale, “No Day but Today,” is moving and beautiful.


First, let’s deal with the “elephant in the room” – this was NOT a “Live” performance until the closing moments.  Apparently, in Saturday night’s final dress, Brennin Hunt, who plays Roger, injured his foot and would be unable to go on.  Rather than cancel the airing, Fox decided to air the Videotape of the Saturday run, letting Mr. Hunt do the Final number in his leg brace.   Not the worse decision, indicative of an attractive “Show Must Go On” mindset, but couldn’t they have “cleaned up” the tape a bit? There were some truly awkward camera movements and some oddly counter-productive editing that could have been fixed, given the new Broadcast plan.


I was also a little cool about the cast.  Most were young unknowns (Vanessa Hudgens notwithstanding), most were “adequate, but not much more. Drag Star Valentina was egregiously out of her depth as “Angel,” showing very little real emotion, talking her way through her songs, and failing utterly at creating Angel’s charisma.  But, durn she did LOOK good!  I did like Mr. Hunt’s Roger, though he did seem older than the others and came across more as a rugged cowboy than a drugged-out guitarist.  Jordan Fisher as Mark, Brandon Dixon as Tom Collins, and Kiersey Clemons as Joanne also had some good moments, but also too many “I’m Saving Myself for Tomorrow Night” moments of “Holding Back.”  Vanessa Hudgens, OTOH, hit every Maureen note perfectly, making me utterly forget her Disney roots, recreating the Maureen we’ve all come to know and love.


I was happy to see some of the creative expansion the producers did with the staging.    Essentially a group of platforms and runways making a labyrinth around blocks of Live Audience, it made that audience a distinct “character” in the piece, something most Rent productions wanted but often didn’t quite achieve.  Sometimes acting like raving concert fans (especially during the opening number and “Living in America”), the audience also provide background scenery at times – holding candles for the AIDS groups’ “Life Support” number and the Roger/Mimi interlude during “La Vie Boheme.”  I can only imagine what that sort of feedback did for the actors, but it made the whole production seem vivid and alive.  (Some online chat has grumbled about the audience overpowering the singers, but I didn’t hear that – I suppose differences in video equipment and cable input make even Live Video productions look and sound different to different people.)


This concept made so many staging opportunities – graffitied street front stores, “Limbo” spaces with elegant horizontal choreography opportunities, even some metallic scaffolding to recreate moments of original production staging.  It even gave the director some opportunity for “overhead” Busby-Berkely-esque kaleidoscope-y moments.


I have to also confess being a little disappointed (at first) to the start of the second act – rather than have the principles and ensemble in a straight line to deliver “Seasons of Love” as a joyous celebration, the production gave it to the AIDS support group, giving the leader of the group that stratospheric solo usually performed by Joanne.  My disappointment quickly vanished, as I began to see how well the idea was working.  Rather than a celebration, the number quickly became a “last desperate plea,” a sort of “these are my LAST 525,600 minutes,” adding so many layers of feeling that it turned me into a wet ragdoll by the time it was over.  This was the moment that truly sold me on the production as a whole.


And, just for the “Rentheads” among us, the post-show “Curtain Call” featured the original cast in that tradition top-lit line.  It was like seeing (and celebrating) our favorite moment AND seeing it deepened and made more personal.  OTOH, hearing Jesse Martin and Idina Menzel belt out those solo parts really put the new cast to shame.


There is a lot of negative chatter on line today about this production, most of which seems to be based on people’s idiosyncratic expectations not being met, and a general “Why can’t they cast Broadway Singers” disappointment with the cast.  Some of that I share, but, all promises to the contrary, theatre and television are very distinct media with very specific skillsets required.  What works in one will not work in the other.  Specifically, a Broadway Belter singing to the back row will across on television like an over-emoting ham, and will probably fail.  On the other hand, casting those with just television experience, which is what seems to have happened here, could too easily devolve into shallow performances


All this being said, your reaction to the show will depend on a large part on how deeply your expectations are “cast in stone” or how willing you are to “buy into” new interpretations of old favorites.  But make no mistake, as problematic as Fox’s Rent was, it is much better than last year’s Grease or Hairspray


Rent is a seminal work of the American Musical Theatre, and is always welcome, no matter how different: it is from what you expect.


    --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com   #FoxLiveRENT  #NoDayButToday)

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