The 20th anniversary national touring company production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” has arrived for a week-long engagement at the Oriental Theatre (albeit a year after its actual anniversary), and it is a big, in-your-face, emotionally empty rendering of a show that, apart from its moments of New York cynicism and satire, should actually get to your heart. In addition, I would bet the price of a premium ticket that if you asked those seeing the show for the first time about the crucial finer points of the story line or the many relationships at play in the musical, they wouldn’t be able to explain them.
‘RENT’ Somewhat recommended When: May 9-14 Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Tickets: $25 – $90 Info: broadwayinchicago.com Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission
This is a soulless production, and Evan Ensign’s direction (“based on the original by Michael Greif”) loses sight of the principal animating forces that inspired the work. As the song lyrics say: “We are living in America at the end of the Millennium,” and then there is the fact that the AIDS crisis is still claiming the lives of many of many sexually active (frequently drug-addicted) young people. The HIV/AIDS epidemic feels underplayed. The time period is muddied.
What’s more, watching the musical just one night after seeing the Goodman debut of “Objects in the Mirror,” Charles Smith’s riveting account of an African teenager’s hellish journey as a refugee, many of the characters in this edition of “Rent” seemed like annoying “bohemian” narcissists who would do well to see how the rest of the world lives and dies.
The massive stage for the show also dwarfs the story, with the East Village industrial loft in New York where struggling filmmaker Mark Cohen (Danny Harris Kornfeld) and songwriter Roger Davis (Kaleb Wells, with a power voice and haggard demeanor) are squatting, conjured with scaffolding and a giant collaged sculpture of junk looming overhead. The best feature of the show is the presence of the small but powerful five-piece onstage band led by Samuel Bagala.
The story, inspired by Puccini’s “La Boheme,” tracks the relationships among a group of artistic (and entrepreneurial) friends, frenemies and ex-lovers living in the rundown Alphabet City neighborhood in the late 1980s or early ’90s. Mark is the nebbishy guy who, for one year (starting on Christmas Eve) records the whole scene on film and serves as something of the show’s narrator. Roger, recently released from a stay in a rehab facility, and HIV positive, is trying to cement his legacy with “One Song Glory.” Meanwhile, the guy’s former roommate, Benny (Christian Thompson) has married into a very wealthy family and, in something of a betrayal, announces he will evict the squatters and turn the property into a high-tech recording center.
The guys’ neighbor, Mimi Marquez (Skyler Volpe), is a hyper-sexualized cocaine addict, also HIV positive, who works as a dancer in a kinky club and has a “live for the moment” motto. And when she first comes calling, and Roger is alone, she brazenly tries to seduce him, but he sends her away, knowing she could be dangerous for him. Of course that is not the end of it. Volpe has a powerful voice and can certainly dance up a storm, but she has the aura of a workout instructor beaming with good health, and her near-death scene is far from convincing.
Other major characters include Maureen Johnson (Katie Lamark, who gives her all in “Over the Moon,” a number that would be far better were it cut in half), the immensely self-absorbed bisexual performance artist. Maureen, who was Mark’s (unlikely) former girlfriend, is now in a shrill lesbian relationship with Joanne Jefferson (Jasmine Easler), her director. And then there is Tom Collins (Aaron Harrington), a gay, black intellectual and anarchist-activist who falls for the big-hearted, cross-dressing street drummer, Angel (David Merino), who can also dance up a storm (as he does in “Today for U”), and whose death also gets lost in the heavy-handed shuffle here.
The overall momentum of the show rarely varies, with everything, including the most intimate scenes, pushed to the limit. The voices are strong, and the score (were it allowed to breathe), is still clever and often beautiful. But even the anthemic opening number for the show’s second act, “Seasons of Love” (“Five hundred twenty-five thousand/Six hundred minutes/Five hundred twenty-five thousand/Moments so dear”) fails to generate much passion.
Maybe the show has simply returned too soon. After all, we’re now living in quite a different America —post Sept. 11, 2001, post-recession of 2008, post-Obama presidency, and all the initial upheaval of the Trump era. As the song asks: “You Okay Honey?”