Theater Review: "Rent" Off-Broadway
That being said, if you're going to go see a production of "Rent" any time within the next ten years or so (for I imagine the show will be relevant again in about ten years), you might as well see the production currently running at New World Stages. Brimming with vitality and a young, mostly anonymous cast in a decently intimate space, one can only guess that this is "Rent" as it was meant to be experienced. True certainty can never really be attained, since the playwright/composer/lyricist died suddenly before the show even started previews off-Broadway in 1996, but if Jonathan Larson were to see the show now, it seems like he would be pleased with the outcome—which, interestingly enough, is again directed by Michael Greif, who also directed the first two incarnations of the show in the 1990s.
"Rent," which is loosely based on the opera "La bohème," follows a group of young people (who, if they were transplanted to today, would unhesitatingly be labelled hipsters) who are broke artists living in an abandoned factory in the East Village of New York. None really has a job, except for Mimi (Arianda Fernandez), who is a dancer at the Catscratch Club, Joanne (Corbin Reid), who is a lawyer, and the pariah Benny (Rashad Naylor), who has assimilated into mainstream society. Mark (Josh Grisetti) is a filmmaker, Roger (Justin Johnson) a musician, Maureen (Morgan Weed, at this performance) a performance artist, and so on and so forth. Benny's boss wants to re-zone the area around their loft to become Cyberland, some kind of Internet-cafe that apparently terrifies the hipsters. The opera's affliction of consumption (better known as tuberculosis) has been updated to AIDS, a destructive disease affecting most of the characters. The story is a familiar one, as the original Broadway production of the show ran for twelve years, was filmed and released on DVD, and was also made into a movie, directed by Chris Columbus, in 2005. Monumentally popular, the show has spawned hundreds of self-proclaimed "Rent-heads" (devotees of the show), and radically changed the landscape of Broadway.
As such, "Rent" is a part of American musical theater culture that should be experienced at some point—and this production certainly outstrips the film, 2010 Hollywood Bowl production, and even the lackluster "Filmed Live on Broadway" experience. There's a sense of immediacy and urgency to this "Rent," and even if the characters aren't necessarily sympathetic, they're certainly passionate about their ideals. There's also something refreshing about this cast; comprised of relative unknowns, they are believable as a group of struggling artists and twenty-somethings (if that—some cast members look like they could still be in their teens!). The aforementioned productions were hindered by the "known" quality to the show; most everyone knows parts of the score (is there anyone who hasn't heard "Seasons of Love" at some point in their lives?), and the original cast has gone on to become relatively well-known, even beyond the world of Broadway. But there's something about this cast that makes "Rent" work in an exciting way—it's much easier to believe that the events of the story are happening to them in the moment (even if Angela Wendt's costume design comes off as more than a tad anachronistic).
Mark Wendland's set takes full advantage of the challenges and rewards that the limited space at New World Stages allows, and shoves the action into the audiences' faces in the most pleasant way possible. The band, under music director Will Van Dyke, brings further electricity and vitality to the story.
While I doubt I will ever be a "Rent-head" myself, I have to admit that the production currently playing off-Broadway is an enjoyable experience. Would it perhaps be wiser to stage it in, say, 2021 or 2031, when it will have become "retro"? Very possibly, but considering it's playing in 2012, it's doing a pretty good job of telling a very specific story.