Friday, May 18, 2012

LACKING PASSION, LIFE, AND LOVE - 'Rent' at American Theater Company

(Photo by Michael Brosilow)

A straightforward, impossible-to-misinterpret lyric from Jonathan Larsons Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent exclaims, "Let's celebrate. Remember a year in the life of friends.

From the, now, very well-known and adored song "Seasons of Love," that simple string of words amounts to what is essentially the thesis statement of the rock musical. It commands the audience to remember these special people, not for the immense difficulties they had to face, but for the remarkable role that friendship and togetherness played in their lives. But Director David Cromer doesn't see it that way. Cromer, famous for stripping classical American plays of their accoutrements to the mirth of national critics and audiences alike, has, one again, worked his sorcery with "Rent", which just opened at American Theater Company in a co-production with About Face Theatre. But this time, rather than illuminating the shows buried meaning with directorial reenvisioning, he's brutally stripped the musical based on Puccinis La bohème of its essential Bohemian personality and passion. Mark, Roger, Mimi, Collins, Angel, Maureen, and Joanne are all so exhausted and breathily defeated that the shows inspiring tagline, No day but today, comes off as a hollow lie.

Cromer's solid vision of a dirty, gritty, Chicago-style "Rent" is smart and sensible, yet hardly novel, for "Rent"s teenybopper appeal isnt inherent to the piece. Rents cotton candy exterior has been acquired over time as, during the course of its long run, Broadway became tame and Disney-fied, a major motion picture version was released, and the original star, Idina Menzel, became a certified diva in "Wicked". "Rent" actually premiered in 1994 at the New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan's Lower East Side, a place that in the mid-nineties, most folks were too afraid to venture out to. The darkness has always been there, but like Cromer realized, it just needed a push. Exploiting Rents rusted facets is entirely logical, but American Theater Companys Rent isnt any darker than the original. It is, however, dully passive and unmoving.   

The cast, other than an agreeable Collins (Alex Agard), an appropriately flaky Maureen (Aileen May), and a full-voiced Joanne (Lili-Anne Brown), are dangerously undersinging Larson's score. After hearing the disconcerting blend of Rex Harrison speak-singing and severely limited vocal ranges barely able to fill the relatively small space, I got the impression that Cromer demanded an ugly sound over the show's famous pop rock. Another considerate idea from the director - giving an ugly situation a correspondingly ugly soundscape - but vocal ugliness and unpleasantness, though similar, are not synonymous. This "Rent" is vocally unpleasant, which does not suit a musical based on a Puccini opera and composed by a disciple of Stephen Sondheim. "Rent" has precise and specific rhythms, and the score, being the majority of the show, takes precedence over the book, which is trite. The music tells the story.

Over and over and over again, characters begin a musical number by colorfully speaking the lyrics, and then encourage the characters around them to join in the song - a lame attempt at explaining why the music is present in a musical. Jonathan Larson loved music. He wrote a musical with upwards of forty songs. There is no need to apologize for that. Such apologies and tiresome efforts to reform Rent as a down-and-dirty straight play are, in actuality, weak and wimpy copouts that go against the intention of the piece and do the audience no favors in terms of storytelling.

The performances - other than the aforementioned Maureen, Joanne, and Collins - are all pretty ghoulish. Alan Schmuckler’s Mark, a character that typically leads the cast, is here more of an ignored secondary character. As Roger, Derrick Trumbly gets through “One Song Glory” comfortably, and has some touching moments with Mimi (a overly hardened and responsible Grace Gealey), but lacks rock star bravado.

The night I attended “Rent”, Esteban Cruz, the actor who usually plays Angel, was out, and in was his understudy, Wesley Dean Tucker. As Tucker is an understudy, his portrayal does not reflect the production during an average performance, but the actor’s Angel is, far and away, the most empathetic, kind, and personable I have ever seen. Tucker injects some much-needed humanity into the stale show, and his relationship with Collins (Alex Agard) is the emotional core of this “Rent”. Angel’s eventual fate hit me much harder than I am used to.

For “Rent”, American Theater Company’s space is reconfigured as an alley, with the audience on two sides of the theatre, an arrangement that compliments the venue well. Collette Pollard’s grungy set is an imaginative blend of cold concrete and white-hot color saturation. David Hyman’s costumes have that same visual juxtaposition, with Angel’s tattered sexy-Santa suit looking more alluring, and fierce than it ever has before. Those bright threads of color standing out on bleak concrete are a striking metaphor for everything that “Rent” is and, in this case, should be.

In “Rent”s 1980’s East Village, life was terribly harsh for poor, struggling artists. The AIDS epidemic was rapidly spreading, assisted by rampant misinformation and lack of action. Larson, who died of an aortic aneurysm in 1996 the day before the show opened at the New York Theatre Workshop, saw parallels to the artistic lifestyle and the spread of Tuberculosis of 1840’s Paris in “La bohème”. Both pieces face harsh realities, and though perhaps “Rent”s are a tad more morbid, with drugs and urban poverty playing integral roles, it’s the unrelenting positivity of these Bohemians throughout time that have allowed them to survive. Cromer’s “Rent”, though, is populated by victims whose passions are mostly reduced to mumbles and despondency. It’s a wonder that they are even able to get up in the morning.

“Rent” with a book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, runs at American Theater Company through June 17th.