Some musicals are epochal, and “Rent” is one of them. It has come to encapsulate the ’90s the way “Hair” defined the ’60s, with heroin and AIDS replacing the Vietnam War.
Set in a crumbling industrial building on Manhattan’s Avenue B in 1996, “Rent” recasts Puccini’s “La Bohème” with a cast of grungy young artists celebrating “La Vie Bohème” on the cusp of poverty, living for today because, for so many of them, there is no promise of a tomorrow.
“Rent” became the stuff of legend when its brilliant creator, Jonathan Larson, died hours after the show’s final dress rehearsal. The show conquered Off-Broadway and quickly went on to a legendary 12-year Broadway run, earning a pile of Tonys, Obies and even a Pulitzer along the way. Today, a small army of “Rent-heads” — devoted fans who see the show again and again — keep the musical alive in rep companies, high schools and colleges.
Two years after a 20th anniversary national tour brought “Rent” back on the road, the show has arrived at New Brunswick’s State Theatre for a three-night stand, and the Rent-heads have turned out in droves. The sold-out opening show, April 2, saw fans whooping and screaming every time another beloved character took the stage, and when a bit of performance art in the play called for the audience to “moo” like a cow, the response was deafening.
The original cast of “Rent” introduced audiences to Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin, and Idina Menzel, among others, and the play’s greatest strength has always been as a vehicle for young talent to shine. The 2005 film adaptation failed, in large part, because the original cast had, by that time, aged out of their roles. If you’re going to do “Rent,” you need young voices with charisma and potential, and on that score, this production succeeds. I’m sure I will be seeing members of this cast in the future, either in other musicals or in movies and television.
But after that, “Rent” has a lot of problems, from its busy score (20 songs in its first act alone) to its large, confusing cast of characters, to a slew of subplots that never fully develop and often don’t make sense. The show simply hasn’t aged well; the hippies of “Hair” may seem quaintly charming today, but no one is nostalgic about Giuliani’s New York, with its squeegee men on street corners, the ravages of the AIDS epidemic, and heroin hawked on street corners like hot dogs.
The story gets so complicated that the program comes with a précis of the plot and a diagram of the major characters: Roger (Joshua Bess) and Mark (Logan Marks) share a loft in an abandoned industrial building in Alphabet City. Next door, an empty lot has become a tent city for the homeless. Roger’s last girlfriend told him she had given him AIDS and then committed suicide, so for the last year, he has been in a funk, although he’s supposedly a wannabe musician. Mark is an aspiring filmmaker who frequently steps through the fourth wall to narrate the show. Mark has just been dumped by his girlfriend Maureen (Lyndie Moe, the sole holdover from the 20th anniversary tour), a vivacious downtown performance artist who is now dating lesbian lawyer Joanne (Lencia Kebede.)
Oh wait, there’s lots more. Roger and Mark’s former roommate Ben (the dreadlocked Marcus John) has bought the building with money from his rich father, and now threatens to evict all the tenants and empty the tent city in order to build a state-of-the-art digital arts studio. Then there are the neighbors — heroin-addict Mimi (Deri’Andra Tucker), gay artist Tom Collins (DevinRe Adams) and his flamboyant drag queen boyfriend Angel (Javon King), who is dying of AIDS.
Roger and Mimi fall in love. Maureen and Joanne organize a protest to save the tent city, but it devolves into a police riot and Ben padlocks the building in retribution. Angel dies from AIDS but becomes an angelic spirit who saves the life of Mimi after she overdoses.
I gloss over those points because the show does, too. It’s so busy with all the singing and dancing that the moments of romance, violence and tragedy come and go almost unnoticed. Roger and Mimi’s chemistry never really clicks; the police riot happens while most of the cast is out clubbing (if I didn’t already know the plot, I wouldn’t have been aware of it). And Angel’s wake simply doesn’t pack the emotional impact it should.
The show also never makes the point that these people are all supposed to be struggling artists; they come across as unemployed slackers living rent-free, with little in the way of talent or dreams. Roger wants to write one great song before he dies of AIDS but can barely play his guitar; Mark points his movie camera at everyone and everything, but he’s more a voyeur than filmmaker.
At the end, the dream dies: The homeless have been relocated, Ben evicts everyone from the building, Mark takes a corporate job, Roger decides to move to San Francisco. Joanne and Maureen break up, and Tom loses Angel to AIDS. But then Mimi’s near overdose brings everyone back to their senses, and the big finale has them all hugging and singing and promising that they’ll be free spirits and stay together forever. It’s all a bit much.
This cast can sing, either alone or in ensemble; that’s this show’s saving grace. But the casting leaves much to be desired. Bess’ Roger looks like he’s just wandered off the set of “American Idiot”; he’s a bit too gym-toned and well-groomed to make a convincing ex-junkie. I loved short, squat Logan Marks as Mark (the role originated by Anthony Rapp); if Adam from “The Goldbergs” went to NYU, he’d be this character. But Marks’ Mark is too nebbishy to believe that Maureen would ever date him. Tucker’s Mimi wows in the first act, but lacks the fragility and vulnerability to set up her brush with death in the second.
“Rent” comes with a lot of baggage, starting with all those awards that raise expectations, and a book that doesn’t begin to match the brilliance of its score. But I’m still glad it came to New Brunswick.
The third and last performance of “Rent” in New Brunswick will be at 4 p.m. April 4; visit stnj.org.