Why should anyone care if they have
already seen it in New York City or any of the three productions
brought to town by Famous Artists? Think youth and intimacy. The Hangar
cast is dominated by professionals about the age of the characters they
play, and seating in the Hangar theater, a fraction of that in New
York’s Nederlander or Syracuse’s Mulroy Civic Center, means the action
is not only in your face, it’s often in your lap.
Legendary musical could almost mean cult
musical. The reverence and devotion of fans for the show has been the
subject of much pop culture mockery, with gags on The Simpsons, Will and Grace and Friends and a lengthy skit on a 2008 Saturday Night Live. And
sure enough, performance of the signature song “Seasons of Love” brings
waves of approving emotion from the audience, something like what the
Rev. Robert Schuler feels when he enters the Crystal Cathedral. Some of
the legend is rooted in the origins of the show, how hard Larson had to
fight for the concept originating with Billy Aronson, the lawsuits with
people with rival claims on creativity, and then Larson’s death at age
35 from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm the night before the opening.
Thinking positive: Cast members of Rent assemble on the Hangar’s floorboards.
What Larson and Aronson had in mind for Rent was
to make the Broadway musical a living genre for the MTV generation, and
in that they succeeded. To do this, paradoxically, they reached back to
the golden age of Italian opera, Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, which opened exactly 100 years earlier in 1896. There have been, of course, previous rock operas, notably Jesus Christ Superstar, and there are profound operatic elements in West Side Story, kind of a proto-rock show. What makes Rent different
and so appealing to younger audiences is that the songs, 45 in all,
seem to exist before the plot rather than grow out of them. In a sense Rent reverses the structure of the once revolutionary Oklahoma! Rentheads
love the music and care much less for the twists or suspense of the
plot. If you can’t remember who used to be sleeping with whom, it
doesn’t detract from what you’re hearing.
Le vie bohème, the Bohemian life,
is more about attitude and choices than it is any one opera. The
original Bohemians, what we would call Czechs, fled a failed revolution
in their homeland and lived in the most squalid quarters of Paris.
Artists eschewing the bourgeois life went to live there, too, and
happily took the names of the exiles. So it is in Rent. Composer
Larson grew up in Westchester County, which he despised, and went to
live the life of a starving artist in the East Village. Like the white
male protagonists, Mark (Adam Hose) and Roger (Jared Zirilli), he would
rather freeze and starve in the East Village than return the concerned
maternal calls from the suburbs. The boys readily embrace racial,
cultural and gender differences. And just as many in Puccini’s opera
suffer from consumption, there is a lot of HIV-positive going around in
The 25 singing roles in Rent, not
all of them named, means the flux of events is almost more than you can
keep up with. In this it resembles the earlier rock opera Hair,
performed at the Hangar two summers ago, more than it does anything in
Puccini. For director-choreographer Devanand Janki just getting this
army up and moving on the main stage, as well as four drop-down stages,
is a logistical triumph. It’s almost as gratuitous that the enterprise
is also often funny, lyrical and sometimes quite moving.
Rent’s plot pays surprising attention to La Bohème’s libretto,
not that many Rentheads would care or that opera buffs would come to
check it out. The painter Marcello of the original has become Mark the
filmmaker, and Rodolfo the poet is now Roger the songwriter. Mark’s
ex-girlfriend, saucy performance artist Maureen (Catherine Stephani),
has left him for a woman, Joanne (Maria-Christina Oliveras), a plot
twist adapted from Larson’s own life. Still, Maureen is based in part
on Puccini’s Musetta, and the famous Waltz reappears here as the “Tango
Roger’s new love is Mimi Márquez (Anisha
Nagarajan), an exotic dancer. They are visited by Tom Collins (Eric
Jordan Young) and his lover Angel (Jonathan Burke), a drag queen. This
character is expanded from Schaunard, a musician in Puccini, but given
much more to do here. Inserting tension to the ensemble is Benny (Nik
Walker), the former roommate of Roger, Mark, Tom and Maureen, who has
gone over to the dark side to become a landlord. His threat to raise
the rent could drive everyone out into the cold street. The Rent of the title also contains a pun, as in “torn apart.”
Amid all the swirling action, the love
relationship between Roger and Mimi draws more of our attention than
anything else. If there were ever a pocket edition of the show,
eliminating the elephantine staging complications, it could well focus
on their several solos and duets, especially “I Should Tell You” just
before the end of the first act. The brilliance of Zirilli and
Nagarajan’s singing here could carry this show by themselves.
Although he has perhaps the least to do
with the central action, Jonathan Burke’s ultra-flamboyant Angel steals
the show with several successive numbers, especially the duets with
Tom, “You Okay, Honey” and “I’ll Cover You.” Angel’s death from AIDS in
the second act sets a somber subtext that continues until the end.
Another big number is Maureen’s
over-the-top performance art piece “Over the Moon,” with gnomic, Laurie
Anderson-ish lyrics. It calls for pseudo-communal hand-clapping
participation from the audience. In many ways Maureen’s is the juiciest
role in Rent, and it made a star of Idina Menzel in the
original production. Catherine Stephani’s commanding physical presence,
with the steel belt below the bare, lean waist, draws our eyes to her
drop-down stage before we ever hear her voice.
Scenic designer Jo Winiarski, whose work is also on display for Cortland Repertory’s current production of Gross Indecency, provides a multiform set, with period graffiti, that is indispensable to Rent’s
success. Winiarski’s set is augmented wonderfully by Matthew Richards’
lighting, especially in the operating room. And Mark Fifer’s
four-player ensemble is a mighty handful of rock’n’roll.
This production runs through Aug. 23. See Times Table for information.