‘Rent’ 20th anniversary tour lacks the heat and heart of Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking epic (review)

March 9, 2018 GMT

‘Rent’ 20th anniversary tour lacks the heat and heart of Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking epic (review)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” changed our perception of what a Broadway musical could be, Jonathan Larson did the same with “Rent.”

The audacious classic inspired by Puccini’s “La Bohème” is set in New York City’s East Village near the end of the 20th century, an avant-garde ZIP code filled with artists, lovers and dreamers grappling with homelessness, addiction and the spread of AIDS.

Larson set out to revolutionize musical theater with his 1996 rock opera, kicking in the door of a fantasy scene dominated by “Cats” and a masked “Phantom” to tell present-day stories scored to music that bled out of dive bars in the Bowery.

He gave the invisible and the marginalized a voice on the world’s biggest stage: They were, indelibly, Mimi, an exotic dancer with a heroin habit; Angel, a big-hearted drag queen who falls hard for Collins (as in Tom), “a vagabond anarchist who ran naked through the Parthenon” says Mark, a documentary filmmaker; and Roger, a penniless musician who fears he’ll die of the virus before writing one last great song.

The “20th anniversary tour” of “Rent” opened at Playhouse Square’s Connor Palace this week, shouldering the baggage of a Pulitzer Prize, four Tony Awards and devoted Rentheads – people who’ve seen the show, as Buzzfeed points out, more times than they’ve seen certain family members.

In a tragic coda every Renthead knows, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm the morning of the first Off-Broadway preview of “Rent.” Larson was 35, the same age as Miranda when his hip- hop homage to Founding Father Alexander Hamilton previewed at New York’s Public Theater.

Miranda recalled the first time he saw “Rent” on Broadway – the blueprint upon which this pale echo of a tour is based – in a thank you note to Larson, published in the New York Times months before “Hamilton” opened.

“It was the first musical I had ever seen with a cast as diverse as the subway riders I saw on the way to school,” he wrote. He was 17, sitting in the nosebleeds with his girlfriend, who’d bought tickets for his birthday.

″. . .The characters were worried about the things I worried about: finding a community, being an artist, surviving in New York.

(Those worries are timeless – the response to detractors who snipe that “Rent,” with its grunge vibe and AIDS support groups, has gone stale. And it’s hardly a stretch to replace “AIDS” with “opioids,” our 21st-century epidemic in full swing.)

“More than anything,” Miranda continued, “it gave me permission to write about my community.”

Miranda took those lessons and wrote “In the Heights,” a musical capturing the sounds, colors and people of the mostly Spanish-speaking neighborhood in Upper Manhattan he called home – and five 2008 Tonys, too.

And he’d be the first to tell you that without “Rent,” you wouldn’t be shelling out the Benjamins to see “Hamilton” at Connor Palace this summer.

Like Miranda, we owe a lot to Jonathan Larson.

That’s why his glorious musical theater masterpiece deserves a more powerful reprise than this road company gives it.

Featuring earnest young actors in uneven performances, the show has little of the heart of the original, emotion that continues to animate the passions of fans. They still cross their fingers to win ticket lotteries and take selfies with signs plastered with famous lyrics (“No day but today.” “La Vie Bohème!”) in the lobby before the show.

Roger (Logan Farine) loves Mimi (Destiny Diamond) with a fierceness that’s scary, but you wouldn’t know it. No sparks fly between the actors, a letdown considering the sexy-weird way they meet. She comes knocking on the door of his squat in search of a match, entreating him to light her candle. (No one in Larson’s Bohemia has money for rent – or heat or electricity either.)

Their duets don’t convince us of their instant attraction or deepening love; Diamond struggles to master Mimi’s demanding part, sounding strained and flat.

It’s a bonus that Farine can belt Roger’s signature tune “Glory:”

One songGloryOne song before I go

But he doesn’t sell its desperation or click in any real way with Mark (Sammy Ferber), his best friend and roommate who documents their hardscrabble lives and fights the pull to sell out.

Ferber, too, has the necessary vocal chops but, like too many in the cast, seems to be performing in a vacuum, a place without heat and chemistry. That’s especially lethal in story about outsiders who find family in each other.

Even a delightful Lyndie Moe – who uses her ample breasts as props to play the self-absorbed, bull-in-a-china-shop performance artist Maureen – and the talented Jasmine Easler as her long-suffering smarty-pants girlfriend Joanne, seem to just be putting on their volatile relationship, like one of their thrift store coats.

Director Evan Ensign, using the road map laid down by original director Michael Greif, doesn’t help his ensemble coalesce into a believable tribe, one that hangs together as everything else is stripped away. They can lose their crash pads, hock their guitars and break each other’s hearts, but their bonds, forged by disease and impossible dreams, are unbreakable, even in death.

The cast has all the familiar trappings of the hit. They look fabulous in the iconic costumes – Roger’s plaid pants, Mimi’s blue, skin tight Lycra (or is it Lurex?) leggings, Mark’s perpetual tongue of a scarf. And they croon under the giant Chinese lantern of a moon. But they never tap into the rawness, the urgent need to make a mark before it’s too late, that has kept Larson’s voice in our ears for more than two decades.

An exception is the company’s sincere rendition of “Seasons of Love” at the top of Act 2, one of the most achingly beautiful choral ballads in musical theater.

525,600 minutes 525,000 moments so dear 525,600 minutesHow do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights and sunsets and midnights, Larson tells us. In cups of coffee. But it’s love, he concludes, that is the proper way to measure a year in a life.

Angel (Aaron Alcaraz) and Collins (Josh Walker) get closest to establishing a real love link in the marvelous “I’ll Cover You (with a thousand sweet kisses).”

Later, Angel is consumed by the plague and Collins’ repeats the tune, a reprise that’s almost unbearably poignant. It’s then that Walker reminds us why “Rent” has endured and why its lessons still matter. I’ll take that moment, though I wish this tour had offered 525,600 more.



What: The KeyBank Broadway Series presents the 20th anniversary tour of the Tony Award-winning rock opera. Music, lyrics and book by Jonathan Larson. Choreography by Marlies Yearby. Directed by Evan Ensign, based on the original direction by Michael Greif.

When: Through Sunday, March 25.

Where: Connor Palace, Playhouse Square, Cleveland.

Tickets: $29-$109. Go to playhousesquare.org or call 216-241-6000.

Approximate running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.