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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
--- 1999 Review ---The tragic drama behind the scenes of Rent seems apocryphal but, alas, is true. Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize/Tony Award-winning modern musical about life and death in the East Village, loosely based on La Boheme, did indeed start its run at New York Theatre Workshop on the very day of his untimely death. Its quick subsequent ascent to Broadway qualifies it as the overnight sensation of the nineties. As it happens, it's more than worthy.
Rent concerns a year in the life of two roommates, Mark (Jim Poulos) and Roger (Manley Pope), their friends and lovers, old and new. Mark, a filmmaker and the occasional narrator lives life mostly as the vicarious fulcrum of three relationships. Roger is a rock musician, an ex-junkie and HIV+. Not getting out much these days, he meets, and is immediately attracted to, his downstairs neighbor, Mimi (Maya Days). She knocks on his doors because she needs a match to light a candle. Recognizing that she is a junkie, he at first resists her advances, although she is eventually more persuasive, at least intermittently. (It subsequently develops that she is a dancer in an S&M bar, and HIV+ as well.)
An old friend, Collins (Rufus Bonds, Jr.) calls and is invited over. Before the call ends, he is mugged and disconnected. A drag street performer, Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), comes to his aid and, by the time they arrive at Mark and Roger's apartment, have become lovers. Both are HIV+. Seconds after the call from Collins, the phone rings again; this time it is Benny (Jacques C. Smith), another old friend who is now their unfriendly landlord. He demands the rent, which they don't have. Still another ring brings a call from Maureen (Christina Fadale), a performance artist and Mark's ex-girlfriend, now a lesbian. She asks for help preparing for a protest concert in the vacant lot next door. Mark heads to the lot, where he meets Maureen's new lover, Joanne (Danielle Lee Greaves).
Act One takes place on Christmas Eve. As the evening progresses, everyone eventually heads to Maureen's performance and then to the Life Cafe, where a confrontation with Benny (who, it turns out had previously dated Mimi) prompts a lively defense of "La Vie Boheme". Act Two covers the next twelve months. The sense of community with which Act One ends is soon "rent" asunder: Mark sells out, Roger decides to move away, Maureen and Joanne fight and split up, Mimi returns to her drugs and Angel dies. The following Christmas Eve finds the group together again, sadder, wiser and armed, ultimately, with a bittersweet lesson: "No Day But Today".
divning the usually-uncrossable bridge between pop music and musical theater, Larson's powerful, emotional score is Rent's heart. Sometimes mis-described as rock opera (a misnomer fueled at least in part by its fleeting bow to Puccini), it is neither. Alternately hard-driving and elegantly somber, the music and lyrics owe as much debt to Menken and Ashman, Bock and Harnick and Larson's putative mentor, Sondheim, as to Lennon and McCartney much less Springsteen or Bon Jovi. Precious little of it is "pop operatic" in the Lloyd Webber or Les Misérables sense and, except for a few of Roger's guitar riffs of "Musetta's Waltz," it bears little resemblance to Eric Clapton either. It may sound louder and harsher than what one expects from musical theater, and it may follow Diane Warren's lyric-writing conventions more closely than Oscar Hammerstein's, but Rent is really a fairly conventional book musical once you scratch the surface.
That book is less than perfect, especially in Act Two when it starts to move, but it matters little. The key to Rent's success has always been the remarkable intensity and enthusiasm with which the young cast performs Larson's songs, and the way Larson's poignant story connects with its audience. You're likely to be drawn in too.
Although the original cast of unknowns who found themselves catapulted into the national spotlight have mostly departed long ago, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won a Tony when he originated the role of Angel, has recently returned to the cast. He brings with him a joyful, exuberant spirit. Michael Greif's direction leaves a great deal to be desired from a story-telling standpoint, his talent for getting thrilling performances out of fresh-faced novices (as well as Bernard Telsey's casting talents in getting them there to start with) cannot be gainsaid.
Much has been made of Rent's significance in the continuing development of musical theater. Although it certainly speaks to a new generation of theater-goers as few other shows have, it's not clear its progeny have been able to sustain the momentum. All the more reason to see the genuine article.
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