Theater Review: Rent at American Stage in the Park

I admire Rent more than I like it.

I admire Jonathan Larson’s idea of translating Puccini’s La Bohème into a turn-of-the-millennium New York rock opera, in which AIDS and not TB is the disease stalking everyone, and gays, lesbians and cross-dressers surround the central hetero relationship. I admire Eric Davis’ staging of the musical, which evokes the 1990s East Village just as persuasively as his work on Hair last year (also for American Stage in the Park) brought us a 1968 Big Apple, and I admire a lot of the acting in this fine production (which I saw in a preview), from Pete Zicky’s clever portrayal of Roger to Alison Burns’ spectacular work as Maureen. If these features — inspiration, direction, acting — were all that Rent offered, it would easily be a winner.

But this is an opera — 99 percent singing and 1 percent spoken dialogue. And the music of Rent is second-rate. Or worse. And it’s a chore to hear the lot of it.

Now, I know this is heretical. When Rent first came to Broadway, it was hailed as the musical of the decade, a work of genius, a theatrical juggernaut. It made the cover of Newsweek, won several Tonys and the Pulitzer, and seemed to stand as definitive proof that a new generation would, after all, rocket Broadway back into relevance. So when I first saw the show, several years ago at the Straz Center (then TBPAC), it took a little while for me to realize that I was not having a good time. Could this grating, mostly unimaginative music actually have deserved so many accolades? Years passed, the memory faded, and American Stage announced that Rent was coming again. And I thought: this time it’ll be different. This time I’ll know what all the shouting was about.

No such luck: the inferior music of this show isn’t half as interesting as that of Hair or Tommy or even Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Larson, who died tragically on the eve of the Off-Broadway production's opening night, was a prescient book-writer, an impressive lyricist, and a drab, drab composer. There are about 40 songs in this show, and only three or four are actually pleasing. The rest are instantly forgettable.

Not so the characters Larson created. Rent is the story of a group of city artists, living and starving for their art, loving and trying to make sense of their complicated relationships. There’s Roger the songwriter, who has AIDS and falls in love with drug addict Mimi, a dancer at a sex club; there’s film-maker Mark, whose girlfriend Maureen, a performance artist, has recently left him for a certain Joanne; and there’s drag-queen Angel, also HIV-positive, who falls in love with renegade MIT professor Tom Collins, also AIDS-stricken. All these personalities are presented with sympathy and humor as they struggle to survive on next-to-no money in an exceedingly capitalist metropolis. Representing Das Kapital is Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III, who once was a struggling Bohemian himself, but has come to own the building his friends are in danger now of losing. Will he lock out his old buddies? Will Roger and Mimi (in La Bohème, Rodolfo and Mimi) live long enough to love each other? Will Benny succeed at squelching Maureen’s performance piece about him? Questions like these make Rent suspenseful enough, just as Larson’s characters, however uninteresting musically, remain convincing from first to last. This is a musical to be enjoyed in spite of its music.Many of the performances can be enjoyed unrestrainedly. I want to start with Alison Burns, not because her role as Maureen is most important, but because her performance and singing are so effervescent, they potently remind you of what a crucial difference a prodigious talent can make. Excellent also are Pete Zicky, who plays Roger as a distracted, somewhat flaky guitarist who slowly discovers himself in love, and Clinton C. H. Harris, who portrays Tom Collins as a suffering angel of endless gravitas. Alex Covington’s Mimi is also specially notable: there’s a tomboyish energy about her that’s always threatening to turn into mania. Set designer Scott Cooper doesn’t do too much with the usual park set — there are some Keith Haring-like figures painted on one backdrop, and some drawings of irrelevant rock stars elsewhere. The apt costumes are by Ty Christine Massola, and the impeccable lighting is by Joseph P. Oshry.

Final summation: Rent isn’t nearly as good as its press. Don’t expect to be overwhelmed.

But there are strengths here nonetheless.

So a visit just might be worthwhile.

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