Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical “Rent,” now in the throes of a second year of a 20th anniversary U.S. tour, is on stage at Playhouse Square.
The show, which originally opened off-Broadway in 1996, is loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s popular opera “La Bohème,” which opened at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, in 1896. “Rent,” a grunge/rock opera, follows a year in the lives of seven young artists in New York’s East Village who are struggling to follow their dreams without starving or selling out.
Despite the hundred years that separate these two works, both celebrate the excesses of youth and the pleasure that can be found in moments of camaraderie and romance. And they lament the consequences of both. For “La Bohème,” the consequence was heartbreak. For “Rent,” the consequence is AIDS.
This is a moving and powerful musical and the 15-member cast in this production is in fine voice. They absolutely nail the ensemble money-song “Seasons of Love,” which is pretty much the litmus test for any production of “Rent.” And the five-member orchestra under Matthew Demaria’s direction is superb.
But boy are these young performers – many of them doing their first tour, some having served as Disney and Norwegian cruise line entertainers, and a few still in college and on professional leave – bone-tired and brain-weary.
It may be the result of having to traverse designer Paul Clay’s massive and congested set comprised of scaffolding and a giant collaged sculpture of junk which, quite frankly, dwarfs this intimate story.
But it is probably the result of performing in an exhausting non-Equity road show, made up of mostly one-night stands in different cities. The cast arrived in Cleveland one day after a two-day stay in Fayetteville, AR, with less luxurious travel, less spacious accommodations, and fewer creature comforts in their dressing rooms than those in higher budgeted Equity tours. All this eventually takes its toll and, in the opening week's Wednesday night performance of this three-week run, it shows.
Much of the production’s two hours and 20 minutes seems performed on muscle memory alone, with little emotion or sense of spontaneity in the acting or execution of Marlies Yearby’s attractive choreography. Nothing goes wrong, per se, but nearly everything in the first act is soulless. New York-based director Evan Ensign might want to check in with his on-location stage manager upon occasion.
Only Josh Walker as Tom Collins, an intellectual anarchist, and Aaron Alcaraz as Angel, the HIV-infected drag queen Tom falls in love with, are in the moment every moment and fill the stage with energy. Their duet “I’ll Cover You” and Walker’s 11th-hour reprisal of it are astounding. Jasmine Easler as Joanne, an Ivy League-educated public interest lawyer in love with self-absorbed performance artist Maureen, is also strong throughout the show.
Other performers – particularly Logan Farine as Roger, a struggling ex-junkie musician, and Sammy Ferber as his best friend/roommate Mark – come alive in the second act. So do Marcus John as mainstream sell-out Benny and Lyndie Moe as Maureen. Their collective rendition of “What You Own” is evidence.
Destiny Diamond, as the drug addicted, hyper-sexualized exotic dancer Mimi, never shows up and is unconvincing in everything she does, particularly “Out Tonight.” There is nothing less exotic or sexy as ineffectiveness.
One of the major, evergreen life-lessons offered by this musical is to live for the moment. "There's only us. There's only this,” suggests the beautifully rendered song “Another Day.” “Forget regret. Or life is yours to miss."
With ticketholders regretting paying Equity prices for a tired non-Equity tour, it may take some time for those in attendance to forget this show and forgive the good folks at Playhouse Square.