By Tristan Lejeune
So, how has Rent aged?
Back when it debuted in the mid 1990s, this East Village, HIV-positive riff on La Bohéme felt downright revolutionary — soaring melodies, sexy heroin users, a dog-murdering drag queen named Angel. The late Jonathan Larson’s musical was a genuine, made-in-New York blockbuster.
But flash-forward two decades and the world has changed. HIV is no longer a death sentence. Squatters’ rights is about as relevant a political issue as “save the whales.” On-stage bisexuality doesn’t feel outré. Is Larson’s work now just as much an antique as Puccini’s?
Totally. But haven’t you heard? ’90s nostalgia is in!
Rent’s 20th anniversary tour, which is performing at the National Theatre until Sunday, has the mood and atmosphere of a band living off its greatest hits. The crowd at Tuesday’s show was literally mouthing along with the lyrics.
That’s the good news and the bad news. This production, stewarded by director Evan Ensign, will give Rent fans everything they want — and give it loudly. It will likely even create some new fans, too; opening night featured lots of young audience members. But the show’s flaws are also along for the ride.
The characters are still thin. Act 1 is still a breathless barrage in desperate need of some down time. Worst of all, the faux grungy “bohemian” aesthetic is still a fraud — commodified heroin chic for the kind of bourgeoisie who can afford a triple-digit theatre ticket.
But if you care about that during “Take Me or Leave Me” or “Seasons of Love,” then you’re made of some pretty stern stuff. Rent has not lost its power to sweep you up in a big sweater-y hug.
Danny Harris Kornfeld, who has a big voice for a little dude, plays Mark, a proudly starving artist living among same in early Giuliani-era New York. Mark, a talented but amateur filmmaker, turns his camera on, among others, Mimi (a scene-stealing Skyler Volpe gives 110 percent), a dancer with a smack habit, Tom (an earnest Aaron Harrington carries the show’s most emotional moments), an anarchist professor way too counterculture to get tenure, and Angel (David Merino brings a megawatt smile to what looks like his dream role), a cross-dressing charmer who turns garbage into fashion. Mimi, Tom, and Angel are all HIV-positive, but not to the point where it makes them less pretty, and the actors who play them do great work.
Less impressive are the Roger and Maureen, but I won’t name the actors because perhaps the roles are just inherently shrill. Regardless: tone it down some, y’all.
This gaggle of friendly idealists in attractive jeans stands up for the homeless and their own squat-pad, singing to the rafters while a talented on-stage band provides the backup. Music supervisor Tim Weil and choreographer Marlies Yearby keep everyone nicely in line.
There’s more sound than real fury, but if you can surrender to the triple-forte joy and pity, you’re going to have a good time. Greatest hits collections are popular for a reason.
It was never really Alphabet City. But now at least it’s authentically big Broadway on tour.