Review: “Rent”. Book/Music/Lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Choreography by Daniel Cruz. Musical Direction by R.J. Tancioco. Directed by Bill Berry. With Andi Alhadeff, Logan Benedict, Daniel Berryman, Aaron C. Finley, Jerick Hoffer, Naomi Morgan, Ryah Nixon, and Brandon O’Neill. Now through August 19, 2012 at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
Theaters are constantly trying to lower their average age demographic so it’s not a surprise that the 5th Avenue Theatre decided to put Jonathan Larson’s hugely beloved 1996 rock musical “Rent” on their schedule. It’s a young skewing show with non-traditional, harder edged music and while the plot line mimics Puccini’s opera La bohème, the hungry young artists in “Rent” are battling AIDS, drug addiction and gentrification instead of tuberculosis and cholera. We also get a wider variety of young artists including a filmmaker, a performance artist, a wannabe rocker and a drag queen. But, the basic story is much the same: young artists struggle to make art, find love and survive in a cold, cruel world.
The story behind the creation of “Rent” combined with the topicality of the subject matter and the rockin’ score all contributed to its original huge success. Like a far-fetched Broadway fairy tale, the day before its off Broadway opening, its creator, Jonathan Larson died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition at the age of 35. His shocking death combined with the freshness and the vitality of the material and its mostly unknown cast projected almost everyone involved with that production into stardom and “Rent” ran for 12 years on Broadway largely due to its scores of devoted younger theater goers, many of them queer, questioning or at least queer allied. The huge success of “Rent” both commercially and artistically (winning numerous posthumous awards for Jonathan Larson including three Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama) means it’ll be a fixture on theater stages for years to come…as long as it draws in eager young audiences.
I don’t think the 5th Avenue has much to worry about when it comes to drawing in that eager young audience. Last week’s opening was jammed to the rafters with a more varied than normal audience including lots of younger people. They were probably drawn to the show itself but a large chunk of them might have just been friends of the cast…I’m guessing that the median age for this cast is probably about 26 with several of the cast just out of high school and the majority of them only a couple of years out of college. But that’s part of the appeal and attraction for this show; it’s about YOUNG struggling artists and the youthful exuberance of the cast and the energy they exude override anything else…including, in my opinion, a book that’s always been a bit lumpy and lyrics that can be a bit juvenile. And, that’s not to knock the excellence of Mr. Larson’s work; “Rent” is a terrific show but it’s not a perfect one and the great tragedy of Jonathan Larson’s death is the fact he didn’t actually get to finish his work on the material…and, we were denied any further work from an artist with such huge talent and great promise.
The 5th Avenue’s “Rent” fortunately comes equipped with lots of its own largely local talent and it lives up to nearly all of its potential. Director Bill Berry has wisely resisted any urge to ape Michael Greif’s original staging and creates a new and very layered production with huge amounts of raw, youthful energy that remains faithful to the original early/mid 90′s setting of the musical yet also retains a sense of modernity and freshness. There are a few times when the staging becomes too frenzied and diffuse with too many things going on at once and too many voices singing different things at the same time and part of that can be laid at the director’s feet but there were also some rather serious sound mixing problems as well. There were a few moments when it was just a cacophony of noise rather than music. But, overall I would have to say I preferred many of Mr. Berry’s innovations over the original work of Mr. Greif; I saw the original touring company of “Rent” back in the day and was disappointed how that show had been staged; it was a bit flat and lifeless. Despite the threat of death in “Rent”, there’s a lot of life in this production.
It’s aided by strong design work including Martin Christoffel’s terrific multi-tiered set that utilized lots of industrial strength scaffolding which opened up the work and gave it a larger canvas to act upon. Tom Sturge’s lighting design provided the softly lit intimacy required for many of the scenes but also wasn’t afraid to go big and operatic for the more grandiose moments as well. Most astonishing was the terrific costumes by Pete Rush in his 5th Avenue debut; the sleek gorgeous lushness of the clothing that included an amazing fresh take on Angel’s “Santa” costume and the very shabby chic style of the homeless characters makes me hope he’s invited back to design at the 5th Avenue. The costumes were dazzling and theatrical but always character appropriate. In my opinion, they’re the best costumes I’ve seen on a Seattle stage this year.
The right clothes make the actor look better but the cast of “Rent” is talented enough that Mr. Rush’s costumes are just the icing on a pretty delicious cake. Aaron C. Finley was appropriately tough but tender as the rocker Roger in love with the HIV and drug ravaged Mimi, played with equal parts pathos and grit by Naomi Morgan and their love affair was both believable and passionate. Personally, I’ve always found Roger and Mimi to be the dullest couple in the show but that’s largely due to the fact that the duo are overshadowed by the far more interestingly written gay and lesbian couples and all four of those actors really shine in their roles.
As the lesbian duo, Joanne and Maureen, Andi Alhadeff and Ryan Nixon are an ideal couple, at least as stage partners with strong Broadway belter voices and amazingly passionate and combative chemistry as the frequently fighting couple. Ms Nixon’s Maureen is the last major character to appear and her “Over The Moon” performance art piece just about stops the show. It’s a terrifically funny performance with a fresh, brattier approach to the character. And, both Ms Nixon and Ms Alhadeff almost stop the show again in Act II with their big confrontation number, “Take Me or Leave Me”. It’s a Battle of the Belters and both actresses work hard enough to make it a draw.
Meanwhile over on the gay side of the fence we have the odd duo of Angel, the street queen and Tom Collins the brilliant but always underfunded scholar. Angel is not very arguably the most beloved character in “Rent”; everyone loves a sassy drag queen who dies in Act II and it’s not surprising that the only original “Rent” cast member to win a Tony was Wilson Jermaine Heredia as Angel. Capitol Hill’s native son, Jerick Hoffer (aka drag diva “Jinkx Monsoon”) sashays his way into this iconic role and wisely makes it his own. Mr. Heredia’s Angel was sassy but cool…more of an androgynous jazzy figure that a full on queen. Mr. Hoffer’s Angel is definitely a Diva but one with a maternal heart of gold…his Angel is sweet but also a bit naughty and perverse. It’s a complicated role that encompasses both comedy and great tragedy and while Mr. Hoffer’s skills as a comedian are not a surprise, his tender and noble final moments as Angel might just break your heart.
And, there’s also a healthy dose of chemistry with his stage partner, Brandon O’Neill as Tom. The two characters seem so very different both physically and emotionally but the dynamic tension between the two and the sheer joy of their performances result in a great team. And, Mr. O’Neill’s beautiful and heart wrenching good by to Angel, the reprise of ”I’ll Cover You” was a joyous but emotionally devastating moment in a show that has more than one such moment. (Hint: you probably better bring tissues to this show…)
Finally, there’s the central character at the heart of “Rent” and that’s our storyteller Mark, the filmmaker observing all the other characters but also the one who’s always alone at the end. It’s really the major role in “Rent” the one character who interacts with all the other characters and Daniel Berryman does excellent work grounding the character and making him vital and central but always interesting and compelling. Mr. Berryman is an engaging and endearing leading man and it’s obvious that audiences are drawn to the strength of the performance and the charisma of the actor.
OK, it’s obvious I liked and enjoyed this production of “Rent” and I can certainly recommend it as an entertaining night of musical theater but it’s also time to address the big fat elephant sitting in the middle of the 5th Avenue Theatre and it’s a mighty pale and luminescent creature…This is not your mama’s original cast of “Rent” with a primary cast largely comprised with actors of color. We certainly can’t and shouldn’t presume about anyone’s racial identity but the principle cast of ”Rent” leans far more towards the fair skinned than not. And, for a show that famously had an original cast largely comprised with actors of color, it’s a bit of a shock for many and a cause of anger for others.
I can understand that shock and I can understand that anger. All actors have it tough; there are a handful of parts for a stadium full of actors but it’s an even harder challenge for actors of color. There are fewer roles specifically written for those actors and fewer directors and theaters willing to cast actors against type. I know there are actors and theater people in town that are upset with the 5th Avenue for the lack of actors of color cast in this production in the principle roles. (And some of that bitterness is from actors who auditioned but did not get cast.) It should also be noted that the ensemble, including understudies for several of the main characters, has a more apparently diverse cast of actors. Secondly, it should also be noted that Jonathan Larson didn’t specifically write the ethnicity of the characters in the original script for “Rent” though obviously a character named “Mimi Marquez” is supposedly Hispanic. Many of the original casting decisions were based on the strength of the actors who auditioned and won the roles but with the intent of the creators to cast the show with great diversity to reflect the locale of the setting. And, actors of all races have been cast in these roles all over the world. Theater companies should have freedom when casting roles in any production..that’s the nature of making art. It’s in the interpretation.
But, I can also sympathize for those disappointed that there aren’t more African-American or Hispanic actors in major roles in this production. Seattle LIKES to think it’s very diverse and liberal but in reality we’re a city where the majority of power is in the hands of people of European descent with a very sizable population of Asians as well. African American and Hispanic actors have very little presence or power with the result that many end up leaving Seattle for cities with more opportunities. That’s discouraging both for those theater makers and for Seattle theater as a whole. It doesn’t make for a fully healthy and viable theater community.
And, it’s not just a “5th Avenue” issue…there’s not a lot of color variance on any Seattle stage, from the big houses down to the small. (And, frequently, if the big houses need an actor of color, they bring them in from out of town…) And, I can’t point my finger at the 5th Avenue and say “Shame on you! Fix this!” What actors currently in “Rent” should be replaced? I’m not going to be the one to tell Jerick Hoffer or Andi Alhadeff or Logan Benedict or Brandon O’Neill, “Sorry, you’re too pale for this role, you’re out!” That’s just another brand of discrimination. But, I would challenge the 5th Avenue and ACT and Seattle Rep and Balagan and Strawshop and WET and ArtsWest and Annex and every theater company in town to sit down and come up with a solution. It would benefit both the theater and our community as a whole.