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A CurtainUp Review

I know you. . .you're. . .you're shivering. . .— Roger
It's nothing they turned off my heat. And I'm just a little weak on my feet. Would you light my candle? — Mimi
Adam Chanler-Berat
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Following a lengthy and healthy 12-year run on Broadway from 1996 to 2008 following its initial New York Theatre Workshop engagement Off Broadway, Rent has returned somewhat unexpectedly but mostly intact to Off Broadway. Apparently the producers believe that diehard Rent fans did The recent return to Broadway of Hair, after only a few months since the acclaimed revival departed, suggests (based on current box-office reports) that it may not have been a good move. Rent, of course, has a considerably younger core audience to draw upon and has been gone for three years.

Except for a few stylistic changes, including the imprint of new choreographer Lawrence Keigwin on a more compacted stage and some newly integrated video and graphics, the iconic musical has been once again entrusted to its original director Michael Greif. He unquestionably has attended to the show's needs with marked discipline as well as with some newly motivated impressions.

The new cast appears younger than the original and performs with the zeal and the drive that earned a rousing reception from the audience at the preview performance I attended. Inspired by the opera La Boheme, Larson boldly updated the loves and lives of the artists and bohemians previously immortalized by Puccini. But Larson's characters are very much of our time.

With only an occasional witty resonance taken from 's score, Larson affixed his melodic rock score to the torments and delights of a close-knit group of New York''s East Villagers. That these downtown denizens seem just a bit quaint doesn't detract from our willingness to empathize with characters who were themselves a century removed from the threat of consumption that once ravished the young.

Larson's music-drama pulsates with an inner-city world gripped by heroin addiction and AIDS. But rather than spinning out its romantics with rhapsodic and bathetic sentimentality, Larson generated a vital, life-affirming pulse in his music and in his story-like lyrics. It's comforting to know that Rent's principal characters are seen and heard as living human beings, not as icons of their place and time.

The new multi-level set design by Mark Wendland is functionally evocative of its locale, purposefully unattractive and cluttered just enough to warrant our admiration. If Greif's staging always seemed to a bit overly declarative and less distinctive than one might have wished for such a progressive work, it does respect both the compelling dynamics of the score and the story.

You won't have difficulty recognizing the characters that have been transferred from Puccini's fin-de-siecle Paris to New York's Lower East Side. Not to waste time on who is the prototype of whom, let's just say that the good-looking Matt Shingledecker has a fine voice and is appropriately melancholy as the HIV-infected Roger, the young songwriter who is not coping well following the suicide of his AIDS-afflicted girlfriend. His goal is to complete his one song, "Glory," before he dies. Adam Chanler-Berat makes a fine impression as Roger's loft-mate and video artist Mark.

Annaleigh Ashford casts some electrifying sparks as Mark's ex girlfriend who has left him for Joanne (a bracing Corbin Reid,) a lawyer. As it happens some performers become indelibly associated with a role, so I kept wanting/wishing Arianda Fernandez to sound more like the original Mimi (the incomparable Daphne Rubin-Vega.) But once over that block, I'll admit that Fernandez was persuasive as the HIV-infected Mimi, the junkie and dancer in an S&M club who comes in to Roger''s life.

Circulating around them all and redefining the familiar are Ephraim Sykes as the hot-and-cold-running landlord Benjamin Coffin III; Nicholas Christopher, as the poet-philosopher Tom; and the outstanding MJ Rodriguez as his HIV-infected drag-queen lover Angel. The effect of the entire ensemble as they resign themselves to their fate singing the philosophical "The Seasons of Love"remains a highlight of the musical and even recalls the poignancy that pervades Puccini's opera.

The five-piece band conducted by Will Van Dyke is effectively worked into the set. Costume designer Angela Wendt has recreated another collection of colorful, trashy-looking garb. The musical's new choreographer Keigwin makes his enlivening contributions count at every opportunity. He provides Angel with some terrifically eccentric body moves for the song "4 U" and the "Tango Maureen," for Chanler-Berat and Reid is an amusingly sexy divertissement.

The frenetic and callisthenic "Over the Moon" is given a work-over by the dynamic Ashford. That and the unforgettable first act finale "La Vie Boheme" with the entire ensemble reminded me why we all knew at that moment that a classic had been born. The question now is whether it has been reborn.

Addendum: There was plenty of grief and sorrow on January 25, 1996 when the news reached us that 35 year-old Jonathan Larson died of an aortic aneurysm a couple of weeks before the opening of Rent, his musical that exalts life even in the wake of death.

For a complete song list, see Curtainup's previews review here.

Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Michael Greif

Cast: Adam Chanler-Berat (Mark Cohen), Matt Shingledecker (Roger Davis), Morgan Weed (Mrs. Cohen, Coat Vendor and others), Nicholas Christopher (Tom Collins), Ephraim Sykes (Benjamin Cottin III), Corbin Reid (Joanne Jefferson), Ben Thompson (The Man, Mr. Grey and others), MJ Rodriguez (Angel Dumott Schunard), Annaleigh Ashford (Maureen Johnson), Marcus Paul James (Mr. Jefferson, Paul and others), Tamika Sonja Lawrence (Mrs. Jefferson, Homeless Woman and others), Michael Wartella (Gordon, Waiter and others), Margo Bingham (Alexi Darling, Mrs. Davis and others).
Set Design: Mark Wendland
Costume Design: Angela Wendt
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design: Brian Ronan
Projection Design: Peter Nigrini
Original Concept/Additional Lyrics: Billy Aronson
Music Arrangements: Steve Skinner
Musical Director: Will Van Dyke
Music Supervision and Additional Arrangements: Tim Weil
Choreography: Lawrence Keigwin
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street
(212) 947 - 8844
Tickets: $69.50 - $89.50
Performances: Monday and Wednesday through Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 7:30 PM, with Saturday and Sunday matiness at 2 PM.
From: 07/14/11
Opening: 08/11/11
Review by Simon Saltzman based on preview performance 08/08/11
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