As I imagine everybody knows by now, in the early 1990's the composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson had the inspiration of reimagining Puccini's "La Bohème" among the boho set in New York's Alphabet City. The show, titled "Rent," was a smash hit on Broadway, won every award imaginable (including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), made a ton of money, and produced a core of rabid fans called Rent-heads. (Larson got to enjoy none of this, because he died the night of its first preview performance.)
It remains a beloved show, and younger audiences see it as a classic, but the excitement around it seems to have died down. What better time for Blackfriars to take another look at it? The company's production of "Rent" opened last Friday night and plays through August 3, and it's a rousing one.
Puccini also had his source material, the popular 19th-century book "Scenes from Bohemian Life" by Henri Mürger. Puccini's version is tragic, but his suave, romantic music gives the story an overlay of charm. Larson's characters are grimier, grittier, and raunchier; their lives are blighted by poverty, as in Puccini, but here the plague is not tuberculosis but AIDS. The music is Broadway-style rock and roll (with a not-quite-respectful nod to Puccini's "Musetta's Waltz").
Larson was definitely a talented writer, and had a knack for fusing the elements of rock music to write real musical scenes. He could write a catchy tune; to hear "Seasons of Love" once is to have it in your head forever. There's also some elaborate choral writing and many beautiful and powerful moments. His lyrics are practically nonstop; there must be as many words in "Rent" as there are in "War and Peace," and unlike many pop-music lyrics, Larson's rhyme consistently.
"La Bohème's" Rodolfo is here a songwriter named Roger (played by Nick Faruch) and his Mimi is uh, Mimi (Courtney Weather), although here she's not a charming seamstress with tuberculosis but a pole dancer who's HIV-positive. (Larsen's recasting of their initial meeting, in a musical scene called "Light My Candle," is one of the wittiest things in the show, set to an infectious rhythm and managing to be dirty and charming at the same time.)
Marcello is now Mark, Roger's roommate and a video artist documenting life among his friends (Jimmy Boorum); Musetta is Maureen (Kaitlin Baldwin), a "performance artist" (do they still call them that?) of dubious talent who looks smashing in black leather – Mark's ex and now an item with a lawyer named Joanne (Janine Mercandetti).
There are also Roger and Mark's friend and landlord Benny (Michael D. Hall), a boho-turned-bougie, and, in one of Larson's most imaginative changes to the original, a black male couple – a rogue computer genius named Tom Collins (Tamar Greene) and a drag queen named Angel Dumott Schunard (Josh Johnson), who spends Act One in a Santa Claus suit. The life force of the group, he is also the first to die of AIDS. These characters are practically bit players in "La Bohème," but in "Rent" they become the show's emotional center. (Now that's re-imagining a classic.)
One ground rule of a good production of anything is that the performers care about it a lot, and everybody, but everybody, in Blackfriars' production of "Rent" seems totally invested in it. The principals mentioned above are a dynamic combination of familiar local performers with new talents; they all have powerhouse voices (several are operatically trained) and energy to burn, and they mesh well as friends and lovers. While they all get standout moments and sing the hell out of them, they are a real ensemble.
The principals and the very busy supporting cast all blossom under Andy Pratt's music direction. The band is occasionally overpowering, and with the actors delivering their lines in the round, sometimes with their backs to the audience, some words get lost. The full-cast numbers are almost overwhelming.
"Rent" is old enough now that you don't risk being called an old fuddy-duddy for pointing out that while the show it still packs an emotional punch in places, it is, to say the least, uneven. The first act goes like gangbusters, introducing the characters, their relationships, and their milieu efficiently and ending with a bang (the happily defiant song "La Vie Bohème"). During the second act, when the relationships begin to sour and death casts a long shadow, the show loses its momentum, turning into more of a song cycle than a libretto: a succession of short scenes and songs punctuated with blackouts.
Some critics find Larson's portrayal of these downtown Bohemians problematic; if they seemed edgy in the 1990's, they may seem fake and sentimentalized in 2013. That may be, though I think time has softened this issue. If anything, the poor are poorer and more desperate, artists still find it difficult to become successful and keep their integrity.
One thing "Rent" isn't, to my surprise, is dated. Except for occasional references to AZT, Newt's lesbian sister, Doc Martens, and other 90's trivia, "Rent" really is almost as timeless as "La Bohème" – definitely a story of a specific time and place, but one that just about anybody can relate to. Larson played fast and loose with many of the details of "La Bohème," but he did respect the original's pattern of intersecting love stories. (In fact I'd say he improved it, or at least gave it a convincing tweak.)
Blackfriars is presenting "Rent" in the round, more or less. I can't compare this to the original staging, but the surround approach suits this piece well, as does the minimal production – a large playing space, a few platforms in the audience area, some tables and chairs and telling lighting. That's about it, and it's enough.
There's so much energy emanating from the cast that the show's start-and-stop-and-start structure, particularly in the second act, becomes frustrating – and it is emphasized in Simmons' staging, which ends most every number with a blackout while cast members move some furniture. This is a minor quibble; the full-cast numbers are excitingly and fluidly staged, and Simmons's directing of the principals is spot-on. This is a show full of magnetic performances.
Any remaining Rent-heads will be pleased with this production of their favorite, and if you've never seen this show and want to judge it for yourself, I can't imagine a much better performance of it than the one Blackfriars is presenting this month.
JCC CenterStage opened its 40th season doing what Ralph Meranto does best: producing a new national work, with local actors, for local audiences.