1:35 pm Aug. 12, 2011
The East Village, as many will tell you if you don't remember it yourself, was not so long ago a dicey part of town, filled with squatters and junkies, artistic types and the homeless, squeegee men crowding the intersections and street kids beating out rhythms on pickle tubs for dimes.
It was even more recently that Rent, a La Bohème of Alphabet City, ended its longer-than-a-decade Broadway run; less than three years, and it’s back, as a period piece. And a surprisingly effective one.
In 1996 the landmark rock musical about AIDS was remarkable for how well it reflected downtown life at the time. (Hold the snark about how much grittier it really was downtown. We’re talking about Broadway, where a stage adaptation of Big mounted the same season and was considered risky, and the other big offerings were revivals of Hello Dolly! and The King and I.)
In its new incarnation, Rent remains largely unchanged in its content, although like everything these days it's been downsized to a 500-seat off-Broadway theater. But its tale of youthful alienation and artists struggling to survive in a brutal era filled with drugs and disease seems like a time capsule from a long-forgotten age. For some, it’s a bittersweet nostalgia trip back to the New York we loved and hated. For some, it’s all new, a local history lesson; I took a younger friend—a twenty-something Rent virgin—and for him, it was entirely thrilling and unfamiliar.
The characters still tend toward narcissistic navel-gazing and transparent bravado, but that hardly seems inauthentic. The script veers from flippant to almost painfully earnest, but again, anyone who’s ever met a young artistic slacker won’t find that implausible. The score by Jonathan Larson—the Pulitzer-winning playwright and composer who died at age 35 the day before Rent premiered downtown at the New York Theater Workshop, never knowing his show would transfer to Broadway, win a raft of Tonys, and run for 12 years—remains thrilling and melodic under Tim Weil’s supervision, a terrific blend of rock and Broadway.
The original cast included a number of well-known performers—Jesse L. Martin, Taye Diggs, and Idina Menzel, to name a few—but back in 1996, they were all relative unknowns. This new crop of young actors similarly features a few standouts whose names we’ll still be hearing years from now.
Adam Chanler-Berat, so winning playing the title role in last season’s off-Broadway musical Peter and the Starcatcher, brings a quiet introspection to the central role of Mark Cohen; he’s less assertive, but also less kvetchy, than Anthony Rapp was in the original. Arianda Fernandez and M.J. Rodriguez have big (high-heeled) shoes to fill as drug-addicted sexpot Mimi and kind-hearted drag queen Angel—but both knock it out of the park, adding a welcome sense of humor to their flashy roles. Fernandez got huge laughs in a recent performance with a simple gag involving a very tight skirt, while the Rodriguez can lighten a scene with little more than a raised eyebrow or pursed lips.
Perhaps the biggest treat of all is Annaleigh Ashford as lesbian performance artist Maureen: She puts aside the abrasive, arrogant character that Menzel built 15 years ago and imbues her (now blonde) Maureen with a broad sense of goofy self-mockery and physical comedy. In the original, this diva drew admirers because her sex appeal outweighed her pretentiousness; here, the diva is in on the joke, and that makes her downright likable. And funny: Her big protest-cum-performance at the end of Act I used to slow down the show’s dramatic momentum, but in Ashford’s hands, it’s a hilarious highlight of the evening.
Under the direction of Michael Greif, who also directed the original Broadway production, not much has changed. The set is a bit more cramped due to space constraints, which poses the occasional problem for staging and lighting. The costumes have been updated by Angela Wendt; they’re largely on target, if sometimes a bit too colorful for a neighborhood I remember so heavily clad in black. Larry Keigwin has added some new choreography, with mixed results, and several projection screens have been added to help create a visual image of the “old” East Village.
Taken together, it all works. You might not feel like you’re really standing on Avenue B, circa 1991, when the show is set. But you’ll definitely feel like you’re sitting in the New York Theater Workshop, circa 1996, when the show debuted and rocked the theater world to its core.
Rent is showing at New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St. Tickets are $69.50-89.50. Call 212-947-8844.
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