The touring production of RENT came through Philadelphia a while back. I wrote a preview and review for Uwishunu. It was the largest big-budget production I’ve seen in a long time. I’m not used to huge stages, mic’d actors and the consistency that comes from years of touring. But, it was a good show and I always love the Academy of Music. Check out the preview below, review after the jump.
It’s tough to say anything about RENT that hasn’t been said before — a 12-year Broadway run; 5,124 performances; countless national tours; productions in 43 countries; one major motion picture; translations in 22 languages. The ever-growing numbers would fit right in as a song in the production.
Add one more tally mark to the show’s stats after a week-long stint at Philly’s Academy of Music, from Feb. 3 through 8.
The rock opera tells the story of a La Bohème-based counterculture collective living in Alphabet City in New York’s Greenwich Village at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The gang’s ringleader, Mark, played by original cast member Anthony Rapp, documents the group’s highs and lows on camera as a struggling filmmaker. The first act is mostly highs as his HIV-positive recovering addict roommate Roger – Adam Pascal, another original actor – finds happiness with the HIV-positive Mimi, played by Lexi Lawson. Philosophy professor Tom Collins (the dominating Michael McElroy) falls in love with the quirky transvestite and impoverished philanthropist Angel, delightfully portrayed by Justin Johnson. As these relationships emerge, Mark struggles to come to terms with his ex-girlfriend’s switch to homosexuality and his inability to pay the rent – exacerbated by his former roommate’s desire to turn Mark and Roger’s building into a high-tech studio space.
It’s a complicated story, and the second act only brings additional obstacles and tragedy. But the show is easy to follow, helped along by short interludes – voicemails, Christmas carols sung by supporting cast members, etc. – that fill the space between major songs and plot points.
A lot of these actors have been playing the same part for many years as the national tour zips between cities, never staying more than a week in any location. Surprisingly, the consistency makes the show better. The cast has undoubtedly become something of a collective itself, which makes the on-stage camaraderie that much more engaging – especially during the first-act’s closing, “La Vie Bohème” – and the production that much tighter. Every music cue was spot on and every performance was well-timed and natural, bringing a small-stage feel back to the massive, over-the-top show.
The oversized production, including a nearly four-story set and booming sound, almost matched the impressive expanse of the Academy of Music. The audience ate the production up, recognizing when favorite songs were coming up and bracing themselves for the show’s many tragedies. Imagine the Broadway production or film as an album release – these shows are the tour where fans can finally see their favorite act live.
After 12 years, some of RENT‘s themes seem a bit dated. AIDS is no longer the debilitating social horror it once was and New York is hemorrhaging young bohemians who can’t afford the rent. But it continues to be relevant to younger generations in a new, more historical way. AZT breaks aren’t common in today’s pop-culture, but AIDS must be remembered and recognized as a devastating affliction that hit these kinds of communities hardest.
Any cheesiness that sneaks into the show is mostly a result of its format. It’s tough to make conversations and revelations about love and death sound dark, tragic or aggressive when they rhyme. The actors deserve great credit for not phoning-in their umpteenth performance and feeding off the crowd’s obvious excitement.
RENT is in an awkward puberty stage – still incredibly successful and relevant to an extent, but not the direct social commentary it once was. It still works though; both for its insight into recent history and for its ever-applicable story about a group of friends who don’t want to face the tragedies, tradeoffs and monthly responsibilities of growing up.