Thursday, September 15, 2011

"RENT" at the New World Stages Off-Broadway

RENT is my favorite musical (as you can see in the "About Me" blurb to the right).  My obsession with the show dates back to when it premiered in 1996 and I first saw it on tour (twice) in 1997.  It's really the first musical I fell in love with as an adult and it's where I mark the beginnings of my love for theater.  I've now seen it 13 times: once on Broadway, every tour that came to St. Paul or Minneapolis (including the 2009 tour that starred original cast member Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp), and a fabulous local production at the Lab Theatre in Minneapolis last year.  So when I heard that there was a new production Off-Broadway directed by original director Michael Greif, but with a new perspective on what has become a musical theater classic, I had to see it.  And I loved the show as much as I ever have.

New World Stages is like a multiplex of Off-Broadway theater (there are six theaters in the building), and seems to be the place where Broadway shows go to downsize (Avenue Q, Million Dollar Quartet).  The stage and the house are much smaller than the Nederlander Theatre where RENT played for 12 years (making it the ninth longest running show on Broadway).  With the exception of one local production, I've only see the Broadway/touring version of the show.  And even though every time you see it's different (cast), it's also somewhat the same (costumes, sets, direction).  So it was a thrill for me to see a fresh new production with all new sets, costumes, choreography, and direction, not to mention a talented, young, (mostly) unknown cast.

For those of you who've never seen RENT before, basically it's about a group of young starving artists in New York City's East Village in the late 20th century, struggling with poverty, AIDS, love, creation, and trying to find their place in the world.  It was written by the late Jonathan Larson (he died the night before the Off-Broadway premiere of the show in 1996), and is based on the opera La Boheme. 

with Adam Chanler-Berat (Mark)
This cast is young and talented.  Annaleigh Ashford is perhaps the best Maureen I've ever seen (with the caveat that I've never seen the original Maureen, Idina Menzel, perform the role).  She's delightfully kooky and has one of those voices that she just effortlessly throws around for comedy, when in reality it takes a lot of skill and control to sing well comedically.  She has a great match in Corbin Reid's Joanne; their duet "Take Me or Leave Me" is a highlight.  Matt Shingledecker and Adam Chanler-Berat are a well matched Roger and Mark, respectively, and well cast for their roles.  Adam is the one cast member I knew before seeing this show; he originated the role of Henry in Next to Normal ("perfect for you....").  He makes a really good Mark (my favorite character); the Mark/Roger duets were great as was the Mark/Joanne duet "Tango Maureen."  We had an understudy for Collins, Marcus Paul James, and he was wonderful (as understudies often are, I find).  As I told him at the stage door, the second act reprise of "I'll Cover You" always gets to me, and his version was no exception.  The casting was very well done for all of the roles, with the possible exception of Mimi.  Arianda Fernandez's performance is ferocious, but lacks the vulnerability needed to make the audience care about what happens to her.  It's a difficult line to walk.

The Off-Broadway stage is smaller with not as much room to run around as the Broadway stage, but they make good use of the vertical space.  It reminds me of a smaller version of Next to Normal (not surprising since Michael Greif directed that as well, and they share the same set designer, Mark Wendland), with its multiple levels and stairways.  The sparse furniture of the original show, consisting of long tables and folding chairs, has been replaced with actual desks and chairs and moving set pieces.  The iconic costumes have been changed, but still retain the spirit of each character.  Upon seeing each them I'd think - that looks like something Mark would wear, even though I haven't seen him wear it before.

with Matt Shingledecker (Roger)
When I met the cast at the stage door I was shocked at how young they looked, as did most of the fans waiting for them (I guess I looked that young 15 years ago when I first saw the show).  I'm a first generation RENThead, but it's pretty cool that there's a whole new generation of young people falling in love with the musical for the first time.  There were plenty of empty seats on a Friday night, so if you're in town definitely check it out.  You can most likely get discount tickets at the TKTS booth.  This show has such heart, and such a feeling of friendship and togetherness and living in the moment (made even more poignant by knowing the creator's story).  This new production captures that spirit beautifully.  It's still the musical that I've loved for 15 years, but a new creation too.

No day but today!