Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rent at the New Rep

I don't like Rent. But I like the New Rep's production of it.

For the pre-Wicked generation, Rent seems to be most people's first musical-theater obsession. Middle-class teens, and the adults they have since become, talk about how the show changed their lives. It seems to have popularized the practice of seeing a production thirty times or more, and it's encouraged newer shows to institute a lottery for a hardcore fanbase among cash-strapped students who would rather spend their money on tickets than on food.

But I don't get it. Sure, some of the songs are lovely (Seasons of Love) or cathartic (Take Me or Leave Me). And there are soundbite messages to inspire (No day but today! Measure your life in love!). And it's always nice when nontraditional, heavy subject matter is wrapped up in musically palatable pieces sung by attractive people so it can be embraced by the masses (here AIDS and addiction; see also mental illness in Next to Normal).

Still, I don't get it. A group of self-obsessed, obnoxious, so-called artists live in squalor, stealing electrical power for their squats from "the man" and generally being useless in the East Village in the early 1990s. Aside from fierce drag queen Angel and her new paramour Collins, there's not a likeable character in the bunch (well, at least Maureen seems to care about the homeless in the tent city, and Joanne is employed even if she is totally p-whipped). But really, for pretty much the entire show (first the movie musical and then on Broadway its closing weekend) I just wanted to punch Mark in the face.

Perhaps if creator Jonathan Larson hadn't died just before its opening there might have been additional changes along the way to strengthen the show. On the other hand, the show also owes much of its success to the mythos of that sad but perfectly-timed news story. So, we're stuck with what we have.

None of this is the New Rep's fault. And to their great credit, I enjoyed the show. Given my dislike for the show in general, I wasn't planning to see this production. But Lisa likes Rent and wanted to go. And when I saw the enticing cast list, I caved and we got tickets. (Thanks, Todd, for the great seats!). This makes I think the fifth show I've seen Danny Bryck in, and aside from that very strange circus-themed collection of performances at the Cambridge YMCA (with the Monkees' Peter Tork in the live band), I've enjoyed them all. And, seriously, I feel sorry for every human on the planet who didn't get to see Bryck as Hedwig. I was also excited to see local star Aimee Doherty as Maureen (I couldn't quite picture it in advance, but she killed in the role--much better than Eden Espinoza on Broadway). And I was happy to see Passing Strange's excellent Eve Kagan and Cheryl D. Singleton again (both wonderful here as well).

Kudos especially to Nick Sulfaro for a shockingly brave performance as Angel. And to John Ambrosino for making me kind of not hate Mark (besting Adam Cantor from Broadway's closing cast). Really the only one not up to snuff was Robert St. Laurence as Roger, who unfortunately is one of the larger parts. Other than him, the entire cast was great, and they sounded so good when they all sang together. Once again, I loved the New Rep's set design (by Kathryn Kawecki). And bravo to director Benjamin Evett for making the show so enjoyable, especially for such a cynical non-Renthead like me. I'm not planning to see the slightly tweaked off-Broadway production, but I do suspect I would like it better in its more intimate home. The huge Broadway stage definitely did not serve this story well.

Rent is playing at the New Rep in Watertown, Mass., through October 2. If you like this musical, I recommend seeing this great production of it.

Edited to add: Lisa just reminded me that the sound for both Passing Strange and Rent were terrible. They need a sound designer stat if they're going to continue to do musicals. The performers and the audience deserve much better. Also, both shows were much whiter than the original casts, which is a shame.

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