Over the past thirteen years, Rent has transformed from a smash hit Broadway musical into something much bigger. The show, which is based on Giacomo Puccini's opera La Boheme, tells the story of a group of New York youth struggling with the challenges and grim realities of becoming adults. Rent takes place at the apex of the AIDS crisis when twenty-somethings not only had to worry about what they wanted to be when they grew up, but the constant fear of catching the deadly virus and dying.
Johnathan Larson, who died tragically before the show's original debut, captures the electricity of this time and combines it with a score that features a number of ensemble pieces that are nothing short of outstanding. When I saw the original production of Rent on Broadway, the performers closely mirrored their characters: they were young and struggling to make a name for themselves. The original show snapped with a spark of energy that is unlike anything else I've ever seen on stage.
Flash forward thirteen years to a touring production of Rent staring two of the original performers, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp. No longer struggling performers, Rapp and Pascal have become inexorably tied to their roles in Rent. After the show a huge crowd met the two at the stage door with a wave of camera flashes and screams. The two have become something akin to rock stars.
So how do two performers revisit the roles that made them famous thirteen years later? Surprising well. From the opening scene between Mark and Roger you get the sense of excitement and enjoyment. But Rapp and Pascal aren't trying to recreate their original performances; they both seem to embrace the reality that they come at the piece from a different space. The result of this is intriguing. Anthony Rapp plays Mark with a much sharper edge, a more grounded and mature performance that places Mark at a greater distance from the people around him. Pascal's change is more subtle and seems to come out in his scenes with Lexi Lawson, who plays Mimi. The duet Light My Candle gets a new life with Roger's rebukes of Mimi's advances taking on a different tone. The number between Pascal and Lawson is an absolute highlight of the show and an example of how a show, even thirteen years into its run, can find new life and space.
A more difficult task perhaps is asked of the newer performers, expected to inhabit iconic roles established by some of theater's most respected performers. Some of the touring cast does this well, and some do not. Lexi Lawson, who left this season of American Idol to take part in the touring production, does a fantastic job of breathing fresh life into her character of Mimi. Lawson is best in the duets, but the solo Out Tonight seems a bit too big for her. The raw talent is there and Lawson's chemistry with Adam Pascal is simply fantastic. Another real highlight of the touring company is Haneefah Wood who plays Joanne. Her duet Tango: Maureen is one of my favorite moments of the touring production. It may be blasphemy to say this, and I'm sure I'll hear from "Rent-heads", but I actually preferred Haneefah Wood's interpretation of Joanne to the original production. Wood captures the dichotomy of being a strong and accomplished woman who still lets Maureen wrap her around her finger. I also really enjoyed Nicolette Hart as Maureen. Almost more than any of the other non-original Broadway cast members Hart makes the role her own. She throws out the original performance template of Maureen and finds her own path to the incredibly attractive but ultimately batty character.
I didn't have the same level of affection for some of the other members of the touring company. Jacques C. Smith's performance of Benny is by far the weakest as Smith seems lost in the role. This is most apparant in the transition between Christmas Bells and Over The Moon, which is a complete mess, partly attributed to Smith's performance. I was also disappointed with Michael McElroy's performance of Tom Collins. During the first act I felt that McElroy's performance was a little listless and that his vocal range felt limited. He completely shattered these perceptions with I'll Cover You: Reprise where McElroy pulls out a performance that is fantastic. This made me even more frustrated about his first act work, knowing that he has the goods but wasn't bringing them until the second act. I felt the same way about Justin Johnson, whose first act performance of Angel was lacking something and whose second act work was again phenomenal.
The rest of the company who fills in the spaces of the show were really strong. The ensemble numbers were best when everyone was standing still, like with Life Support or Seasons of Love, however when the ensemble tried to sing and move the result ended up being a lot more muddled and chaotic as it was with Christmas Bells and La Vie Boheme (which was one of the only corner stone songs of the show that didn't seem to hit its mark).
But, I feel silly complaining about some of the minor details of this show. It's like complaining about the frame on the Mona Lisa. Rent is a masterpiece that resonates as well today as when I first saw it on Broadway. It's a show whose universal relevance places it firmly as a 'classic' that is sure to be played for generations to come. The show exists in a lot of forms, from the less than stellar Christopher Columbus film version to a Reunion Broadway performance on Blu-Ray and DVD. Nothing can compare to seeing Rent live. It's an absolute gift to have Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp reprise their original roles and the supporting touring company is well above the quality of most touring companies. I'd even go as far to say that Rent "The Broadway Tour" is the best touring company I've seen perform in Portland.
If you've never seen Rent, you owe it to yourself to see this show live. I doubt we'll see Rapp and Pascal in these roles again, so there probably won't be a better version of this show out there than this. If you love Rent, I'm happy to report that this production does the show justice, and odds are you already have tickets.
Rent runs at the Keller Auditorium through June 28th. $20 day of show tickets are available. Also of note is that the Portland Opera is opening their 2009-2010 season with Puccini's opera La Boheme in September, so this is a rare opportunity to see Rent and La Boheme within months of each other, something that will enrich the experience of seeing both.
For more information on Rent at The Keller: