I know I’m a film and TV reviewer, but if you will indulge me for a moment, I would like to take a moment of your time to discuss the new Off-Broadway production of Rent.
|Image from Fandomania.com|
I think there’s somewhat of a bias against Off-Broadway shows in New York. I mean, if you’re going to pay that kind of money to see a show, shouldn’t it be ON Broadway? Well, last night I went to see The New World Stages’ version of Rent, Off Broadway, and let me just start of by saying that not for one second did I feel like I was seeing a second string production; this version was fantastic. My sister and I won the lottery and got 2 front row tickets for 25 dollars. It felt very appropriate to win the tickets, given that the whole notion of Broadway lottery tickets was started by the original Rent.
There are a few immediately notable differences when you see an Off-Broadway production. Namely, the stage and theater itself are a little smaller, but that did not limit the talent of the performers and it promises all audience members a good view of the action. The cast is a mix of both seasoned and novice performers. Despite they’re varying levels of experience, they all pouring out their hearts and souls into their roles and execute with the precision of theatrical veterans. It’s a very young cast, MJ Rodriguez (Angel) is probably the youngest, having graduated high school just one year ago. He was just a toddler when the original stage version of the show came out, yet he plays his role as though he knows that life directly.
This is the third time I've seen Rent. I've seen it once on Broadway, once in Boston and now here. What draws me to this show is the music, characters, and its emotional center. With a revival it’s important for the show to remain true to the original while also breathing new life into it, ensuring its relevance to modern society while also exciting longtime fans while inviting new ones. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of both the director as well as the actors. The director, Tony award winning Michael Greif, chose some costume changes to add new life to the characters. Gone is Mark’s iconic blue stripe sweater and scarf and in is a plaid flannel shirt. Roger’s dress is much more emo and grungy and less punk rocker. However, Angel’s just as flamboyant as he ever was! The set reminds me of the original one, this one being slightly more minimalist. That, though, might be a function of being in a smaller theater. The actors also tread the fine line of creating nuances to their characters while also being true to them. Today, after telling a friend of mine about going to the show, she said, “I don’t know if I could see it – Collins IS Jesse L. Martin to me.” I assured her that this Collins is very similar to his originator’s version without feeling stale. Same goes for most of the characters. The one alteration I took issue with was with Maureen, played by Annaleigh Ashford. This incarnation is a completely different character. Ashford plays Maureen less strong and stubborn and more stubborn and bratty than she has traditionally been. Both types work, but it was surprising to see this character take more of a back seat kind of role than in previous productions.
To me, what was most interesting about watching this play in 2011, 15 years after the original debuted, is I’m not quite sure if all of it still holds up. Ironically, given our current political climate, the revival of Hair from 1968 origins is more relevant than something much more recent. This is true mostly because rather than dealing with political issues, Rent tackles mostly shortcomings.
For instance, most of the characters in this show suffer from HIV or AIDS. Thank God, HIV and, to a lesser extent, even AIDS, are no longer promise imminent death. It’s also no longer as stigmatized as it once was. And when the characters belt out “living with, not dying from disease,” in reference to their ailments, it feels somewhat outdated as thousands of people are doing just that right now. Furthermore, Alphabet City, like most of NYC is no longer exclusively for poor bohemian artists (and yuppie kids rebelling from their parents by acting poor or choosing to be poor). Furthermore, in this time of economic uncertainty when so many who desperately want jobs and can’t find them, it seems somewhat cavalier to venerate those who choose to live the poor life. Benny, the “yuppie scum,” comes across less of a sell-out in this version and more of a responsible adult looking out for his slacker friends. While the utopic ideals that the characters belt out in the first act, eventually come crashing down on them in the dystopic second act, Audiences already know that this model isn’t truly an ideal. They watch it with a bit of distance, no longer directly identifying with all the play has to say because to a certain extent, now they know better.
There are, however, a number of themes that do hold up. The interpersonal relationships between the characters remain the production’s heart. The love that the characters feel for one another and their friendships are what gives this story universal and everlasting appeal. Collins’ and Angel’s loving relationship is juxtaposed to Maureen and Joanne and Roger and Mimi’s tumultuous relationships. In a time where Gay Marriage is still so contentious and even though it has just been legalized in New York State, these relationships being presented honestly and normalized feels even more relevant as it shows the diversity of types of relationships that exist in our society without all the sensationalism and political drama it often involves.
All in all I loved this performance. While it doesn't bring anything groundbreakingly new to the show, it reminds us where we've come and while we've come a long way we have so much further to go. The actors were all very talented and brought true emotional depth to their roles. I watch it with nostalgia and with the hope that the utopian ideals that are presented in the first act will someday come true. We’re getting there.
Here's a preview of the show. But I recommend you go see it in person.