By Perry Tannenbaum
Twenty years – or as Jonathan Larson would have phrased it, 10,519,200 minutes – is a long time to expect a trend-setting, very much of-the-moment musical to retain its currency. Rent actually did quite well, lasting over 12 years and 5,000 performances on Broadway during its singularly funky run. During those first hot box office years, I remember deploying my daughter to the Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street in hopes of snagging a couple of rush tickets while I kept my place on a long Times Square TKTS line in case the Rent raid didn’t pan out.
It didn’t. Rent fans were a multitudinous rabid cult, so we went to Plan B for that evening’s discount tickets.
Like AIDS, AZT breaks, answering machine beeps, and young lives structured around demonstrating and protesting, rush tickets to Rent was a rite of passage that slowly faded away. Since Rent premiered in 1996, the 20-year tour presumably began last year – before it seemed like demonstrating and protesting just might be coming back full force.
The current tour at Belk Theater does occasionally look like a period piece. Mark Cohen, our narrator, walks around with a film camera taking movies, and he shows them on a contraption called a projector. Cordless phones haven’t become ubiquitous, settling in an abandoned building hasn’t become an outré idea, a power outage brings city life to a standstill, and young people seem capable of surviving without TV’s and video screens glowing in their faces (by contrast, take a peep at the TV saturation in the current Actor’s Theatre production of American Idiot at Queens University).
What turned me off to the first tours I saw was the rock ‘n’ roll arrogance of the lead players, who seemed to take the adulation of their audiences as a license to strut and preen instead of actually doing their jobs. Ironically, it was the “Farewell Tour” that brought the original Roger and Mark to town, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, and showed me what actors could do with the roles that wannabe rockstars couldn’t. With a bit of commitment from the players, I also saw the gay romance between Tom and Angel come to life as more than a comical sideshow.
But although the drug-addicted, AIDS-afflicted Mimi on that tour could rock an ultra-tight pair of glittery turquoise pants, she didn’t bring enough romantic fire to her “Light My Candle” duet with Pascal to set it ablaze. Even more icy and moribund were slumlord Benny and lawyer/community organizer Joanne. There was plenty of room for improvement.
Under the direction of Evan Ensign, the 20th anniversary edition has become off-limits for self-absorbed posturing and strutting – and nobody is s-o-o-o cool that he or she threatens to freeze before our eyes. The chief heat source is Skyler Volpe as Mimi Marquez, not only scorching her “Out Tonight” showpiece but also igniting the whole evening with her suggestive “Light My Candle” seduction.
With Marcus John restoring life and force to Benny, there’s suddenly a reason why Mimi would forsake Roger for him besides money and a warm place to crash, and with Jasmine Easler as Joanne, we begin to see why she’s even in the show. Kaleb Wells and Sammy Ferber, if not the equals of Pascal and Rapp, play to their castmates and us without ever basking in their own I’m-starring-in-Rent awesomeness.
Aside from the dynamic Volpe, the biggest improvements here are Aaron Harrington as the woebegone Tom Collins and Aaron Alcaraz as the frail and flamboyant Angel, the quirky transvestite who briefly lights up Tom’s life like a meteor. The warmth between them is there almost from the moment they meet. Instead of a flash of comic relief that suddenly turns serious – and sentimental – at the end, the denouement of the Tom-Angel romance can now legitimately substitute for the tragedy that doesn’t happen between Roger and Mimi.
Notwithstanding the candle scene and the electric reprises of “Musetta’s Waltz” on Roger’s guitar, the shadow of Puccini’s La Boheme doesn’t seem to hover over Rent so heavily after 20 years. Nor is it quite as agonizing to hear the jejune repeats of “525,600 minutes” throughout Act 2. We are now more likely to look back and see that the two theatre pieces that best captured “living in America at the end of the millennium” were Angels in America and Rent. Both seem more worthy of their Pulitzers than ever.