The lyric asks, “How do you leave the past behind?” And the Rentheads answer, “You don’t.” Crowds stood in the snow from 7 a.m. waiting for cheap seats, wearing their signature black-and-white scarves. The many youthful members of the audience were nevertheless “Rent” vets, greeting songs with swooning shrieks. As one young man said happily, “This is history!” — a response to Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp and Gwen Stewart reprising roles they made famous in the original 1996 production. Opening night of the new tour’s Philadelphia stop was timed to coincide with the DVD release of the final Broadway performance last September.
If the production’s Mark (Rapp), Roger (Pascal) and Angel (Justin Johnston) are showing their age, they’ve still got the stuff to deliver the goods. The “Voice Mail” songs are still poignant and funny; “Tango: Maureen” is still a knockout; and the full-company songs “La Vie Boheme” and “Goodbye Love” remain potent. But if you don’t know the words, you’re likely to be mystified by the plot, since much clarity is lost in overmiking.
The signature choreographic jumps onto the table seem less frequent (and the table less high), and although both Lexi Lawson’s Mimi and Nicolette Hart’s Maureen are sexy and generally gorgeous, their characterizations lack the necessary charm and warmth, sliding into the crass rather than the winsomely trashy. Haneefah Wood as Joanne is a presence.
“Rent” has always been sentimental in its view of homelessness, drug addiction, hunger and sickness. Refusing the tragic Puccini conclusion where terminal illness is terminal, the tuner has Mimi revive and Angel return from the dead to the audience’s noisy joy.
Time has passed: AIDS is no longer quite the epidemic doom it was, young artists are no longer scornful of success, East Village rents are through the roof, and the cheap superiority of being a marginalized New Yorker seems an odd fit with the pampered suburbanites in the audience who probably never missed a shower, much less a meal. But “Rent” long ago entered the realm of the iconic musical, and this latest touring production (which travels next to New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Feb. 10-15) proves its durability.