Review: ‘Rent’

Tapping into the zeitgeist can be dangerous for an artist. What's gained in popularity may be lost in longevity. Will "Hair" ever again be more than a curious if pleasant musical relic from an increasingly antiquated era?

Tapping into the zeitgeist can be dangerous for an artist. What’s gained in popularity may be lost in longevity. Will “Hair” ever again be more than a curious if pleasant musical relic from an increasingly antiquated era? Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” exploded onto the theatrical scene in 1995 with the force of its “now”-ness and the tragedy of the author’s sudden death just days before its opening helping to drive a maelstrom of critical raptures. Two-and-a- half years later, the show is Broadway history, but so, of course, is “Hair,” and already “Rent” is beginning to show its age — which may be why director Michael Greif has cast this new company (his third, and counting) with a notably younger cast than the original. On the other hand, given the show’s blockbuster success, he may expect them to be in it for the next 10 years.

Greif, artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse, where this new company starts out before hitting L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre, took some knocks for his staging of the show (and lost the Tony to George C. Wolfe for “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk”), but his choices are beginning to look savvier.

The glories of “Rent” are all in its songs, and with his almost concert-style direction — Paul Clay’s set is casually minimal, and the cast is arrayed at the lip of the stage singing pointedly to the audience at regular intervals — Greif helps to mask some of the show’s awkwardnesses, and puts the emphasis on the magic of Larson’s melodic skill in a variety of pop-rock styles.

Among the musical highlights of this production are the performances by Neil Patrick Harris and Christian Mena as Mark and Roger, respectively, the roommates whose garret — the top floor of an abandoned building in New York’s dicey Alphabet City neighborhood — is the locus of Larson’s ’90s riff on the plot of Puccini’s “La Boheme.”

As struggling filmmaker Mark, Harris — of “Doogie Howser” fame — is fresh, earnest and energetic, and has a fine singing voice, too. Mena’s voice is rich and resonant, and he has a sexy, brooding presence that adds texture to his role. (Their duet on the title tune is oddly homoerotic here.)

Former “My So-Called Life” co-star Wilson Cruz is winning as drag queen Angel, though his dancing and singing are still a little tentative. Also needing some polish is Julia Santana as Mimi. She’s almost a facsimile of the role’s originator, Daphne Rubin-Vega, but sometimes seemed vocally strained, and has a fondness for the stagy hand gesture when singing.

Kenna Ramsey is vocally assured and confident as Joanne, sometime lover of performance artist Maureen, who’s played with comic impudence by Leigh Hetherington (the latter’s vocalizing on their duet, however, needs toning down from its full screech).

In any case, the few problems of performance have more to do with the cast’s apparent greenness than a lack of talent, and can be easily ironed out. What the death of Larson, the book writer, composer and lyricist, has made impossible is the solving of some deeper problems. The freshness of “Rent” is in its conception, in Larson’s belief — a quixotic one in this treacherous theatrical age — that viable, popular musical theater could be made of the sometimes grim urban landscape of the late 20th century: the AIDS epidemic, the question of the homeless, the plague of heroin addiction.

We see the difficulty of his path by noting that it’s still not being followed: This season’s new musicals concerned a 1920s dance marathon, the sinking of the Titanic and Times Square in the ’70s. Not exactly ripped from today’s headlines.

But the originality of a subject is of course a superficial asset, and one that fades with familiarity. Meanwhile, some faults of execution glare ever brighter. Chief among these is the thinness of the characters almost across the board. It’s taken for granted that these kids all want to be artists, but what drives them from Scarsdale to Alphabet City isn’t illuminated. (It doesn’t help that all their works of “art,” from Roger’s one “great” song to the snippets of Mark’s movie to Maureen’s performance piece, are pretty abysmal.) And we never learn why Mimi and Roger turned to heroin addiction — maybe because it went with the rubber outfits and the neighborhood?

Larson paints a vivid milieu here, but doesn’t create emotionally engaging characters. (Puccini concentrated on just a quartet, while Larson gives equal time to eight — plus various social issues.)

The show’s structure is sometimes confused, with various couples, notably Maureen and Joanne, seeming to get together and break up willy-nilly. The second act in particular seems an awkward jumble of confrontations and reconciliations. And of course there is the question of datedness. When Mimi stops a musical number for an “AZT break,” you want to shout, “Hey kids, what about protease inhibitors?” (Though, interestingly, promising developments in AIDS therapies have made Mimi’s ultimate fate symbolically apt, while it just seemed sentimental on first viewing.)

The homeless issue isn’t given enough depth here to make it seem more than a politically correct touchstone that’s now somewhat out of date, as will soon be some of the New Age therapy-speak dialogue (“He’s in denial,” Mimi shouts of Roger; “Life Support’s a group for people coping with life,” chirps Angel, almost nonsensically.)

But in moments of musical inspiration “Rent” transcends its limitations, and these moments are many and varied. “La Vie Boheme,” a paean to ’90s-style rebellion, is a gloriously energetic riff in the tradition of Cole Porter’s “list” songs: “To hand-crafter beers made in local breweries/To yoga, to yogurt, to rice and beans and cheese/To leather, to dildos, to curry vindaloo/To huevos rancheros and Maya Angelou.”

Mimi and Roger’s duet “Light My Candle” is delicate and musically complex. “Another Day,” with its anthemic coda “No day but today,” is a moving evocation of the sadly transitory nature of both life and love, echoed in the haunting “Seasons of Love.”

Indeed there are few songs without some distinction in “Rent” — a remarkable achievement for a show that’s almost sung-through. For all its faults, “Rent” is to be prized as a collection of memorable songs from the pen of a first-rate songwriter, whose talent might one day have ranked him among the great names of his craft.

Rent

Mandell Weiss Theater, La Jolla; 492 seats; $65 top

Production

La Jolla Playhouse presents a musical in two acts with book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Michael Greif.

Creative

Choreography, Marlies Yearby. Musical supervision and arrangement, Tim Weil; music direction, Robert Sprayberry; original concept/additional lyrics, Billy Aronson; musical arrangements, Steve Skinner; set, Paul Clay; costumes, Angela Wendt; lighting, Blake Burba; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy; production stage manager, Tom Bartlett; stage manager, Kristen Harris; casting, Bernard Telsey Casting; additional casting, Kim Orchen; La Jolla Playhouse artistic director, Greif. Opened, reviewed July 13, 1997. Runs through Sept. 13. Running time: 2 hrs., 45 min.

Cast

Cast: Christian Mena (Roger Davis), Neil Patrick Harris (Mark Cohen), Mark Leroy Jackson (Tom Collins), D'Monroe (Benjamin Coffin III), Kenna Ramsey (Joanne Jefferson), Wilson Cruz (Angel Schunard), Julia Santana (Mimi Marquez), Leigh Hetherington (Maureen Johnson).
With: Carla Bianco, Kevyn Brackett, Sharon Brown, Curt Skinner, Andy Senor, Brent Davin Vance, Sala Iwamatsu.
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