Smile! Rent's Return to New York

DISCLAIMER: This review was written two weeks ago, after seeing Rent's 8th preview performance the week before. It's based, therefore, on the new off-Broadway production as it existed just one week into public performances. While we plan to return to Rent, we haven't yet, and can't comment on the frozen version of the production. Based on the unspoken principles of integrity that surround theater journalism, we decided to wait and post this review until this evening, the show's official opening night.

When the news broke late last year that Rent would return to the New York stage, just three short years after the long-running Broadway production finally shut down at the Nederlander Theatre, the theatrical world exploded. Literally. Many reactions, including our own, at first, expressed the opinion that it was much too soon for a revival, that it hadn't had enough time to settle in and fade in the minds of fans or be "missed" yet. Some were afraid that the new production would simply be a carbon copy of the Broadway show, that the producers were selling out for any profit possible. Some were afraid that it would change completely and dishonor the iconic nature of the show. Rentheads are notorious for being fiercely devoted to their show (not a bad thing!), and of course a revival of Jonathan Larson's tale of bohemians struggling against HIV/AIDS and societal oppression in New York's Lower East Side would spark controversy. Questioning continued with each casting rumor - would the races of several characters be changed? How could this person or that person possibly be cast in this role or that role?

Did all of this mean that we (as in the collective "we") weren't excited for the revival? Of course not. The truth of the matter is that our generation has grown up on Rent. Judge me or don't, but my very first introduction to the world of contemporary theater was sitting in a movie theater, feeling completely enraptured by the 2005 film version of Larson's show. I've since seen the Broadway tour with Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal; heck, after an entire semester of living across the hall from each other, the tour's arrival in Philadelphia was the catalyst that sparked Hillary and I to strike up a conversation! But the thought of seeing the show that started it all for me in New York was an exciting and moving prospect. In the end, all the premature critiques and concerns expressed by fans were really just an expression of how deeply embedded Rent has become in the Broadway community.

Thanks to Hillary's fierce lotto luck (as well as the karma I earned from sitting on a bus for three hours in rush hour traffic and having to race like crazy to New World Stages, only to just miss the opportunity to put my name into the lotto bucket), we were able to purchase front row tickets to the production as it opened its second week of previews, going in relatively cold and making up our own minds about the long-awaited revival. And as soon as Mark spoke the words "We begin on Christmas Eve..." all doubts in our minds disappeared. In addition to some fantastic new staging and a few costumes that vary from the iconic originals, what makes this production of Rent really pop is the truly excellent, young cast that  presents the show and its message in a way that's fresh, relevant, and very much alive. It's kind of odd to realize that members of this cast, most of whom are in their 20s or early 30s, grew up singing along to "La Vie Boheme" on their Walkmans, just like we did (albeit sounding a bit more impressive). To have the generation who grew up on this show take a hand in continuing to share its message with the next generation is something pretty special, and ultimately what makes this revival so perfectly poignant.

Since so much of our anticipation for Rent was based on our previous experiences with the show (and in some cases, previous experiences with these actors in different shows), we've decided to craft this post in the manner of What We Expected vs. What We Got:

  • Annaleigh Ashford as Maureen

What We Expected: We'd both liked her as Jeannie in the replacement cast of Hair last summer, and although she didn't fit the "mold" of past Maureens, we decided to hold judgement until seeing her.

What We Got: Ms. Ashford's Maureen was sort of what we'd expected from her, and sort of completely different as well - a bit spastic, very much kind at heart, and fiercely individual. She was not quite the stereotypical ditzy blonde, but there were definitely elements of naivety and innocence in her character. (At points it was obvious that Maureen was very caught up in protesting, but it also seemed that she didn't know exactly what she was protesting.) The highlight of Ms. Ashford's performance was Maureen's performance number, for sure; she made "Over The Moon" completely her own and was absolutely hysterical doing it.

  • Adam Chanler-Berat as Mark

What We Expected: Literally THE most perfect casting decision we'd ever heard in our young lives.

What We Got: Literally THE most perfect casting decision we'd ever heard in our young lives. Mr. Chanler-Berat brings the same qualities to Mark as he did to Henry in Next to Normal and Peter in Peter and the Starcatcher - an overwhelming amount of genuine heart and sensitivity, the strongest concern for his friends, and an inability to conceal his underlying enthusiasm for life. It breaks Mark's heart to see the people he loves getting hurt, or to offend or hurt someone in any way, and that aspect of the character really dominates Mr. Chanler-Berat's performance. His reaction to being shot down by the Bag Lady for filming her on-the-streets lifestyle, for instance, perfectly conveyed Mark's embarrassment at realizing that he'd made her feel like an object of pity - and that his own situation, financially, at least, wasn't so different from hers. Watching Mark's reactions in the background during scenes where another character is suffering emotionally (Collins during "I'll Cover You (Reprise)," Roger during "Finale A" and "Your Eyes") only reinforced this characterization. It's like Mark tries his best to quietly tiptoe around these injured souls, while wanting so badly to help them, while discounting his own abilities to do so. Admittedly, his Mark isn't as self-involved as Anthony Rapp's portrayal of the character, but Mr. Chanler-Berat brings out another layer in Mark that works just as well. Vocally, his distinct voice fits Mark's songs perfectly, and stands out in the larger numbers, giving a lot of texture to the ensemble's sound. Not to mention that he looks absurdly similar to Jonathan Larson (photo thanks to Broadway.com). Seriously, with Mr. Chanler-Berat's haircut, the resemblance is absolutely uncanny, and really kind of an awesome tribute to the show's talented and gone-too-soon creator.

  • Nicholas Christopher as Collins

What We Expected: We'd both seen and enjoyed him as Benny on the recently-closed first national tour of In The Heights.

What We Got: Seeing that neither of us knew much about a large majority of the cast beforehand, Mr. Collins was possibly the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the night. He played the role very sensitively, and it really made sense why Collins would be friends with Mark. He also let Angel take the lead in their developing relationship, which made Angel's death even more heartbreaking. I loved that he didn't pick up on, or add to, any of the flirtatious innuendos in his first encounter with Angel (like the lines "Angel...indeed!" and "Nice tree"). And "I'll Cover You (Reprise)" was absolutely stunning.

  • Arianda Fernandez as Mimi

What We Expected: We had no opinion on Ms. Fernandez prior to her casting. However, we'd heard that she'd played Mimi before, on tour, and hadn't been particularly impressive.

What We Got: Ms. Fernandez definitely exceeded my rumor-infiltrated expectations. She's an incredible dancer (thanks to a new, more three-dimensional set design, "Out Tonight" basically took place over our heads, and it doesn't take much more than dancing in heels that reach dangerous heights to impress us on that department!), and when she belts, she sounds fantastic. While we didn't *love* her through portions of act one (i.e. lack of a strong belt on "Ouuu-oooottttt, tonight," although she's certainly not the only Mimi to perform the song that way), she grew on us with strong, clear vocals in act two, and "Without You" was well done. We also felt that she had great chemistry with Mr. Shingledecker, and the two made a very believable couple.

  • Corbin Reid as Joanne

What We Expected: We'd seen her in the ensemble of American Idiot, and didn't have a particular bias toward or against her.

What We Got: I felt that Ms. Reid really brought a fresh and very relevant perspective to Joanne, making her tough, professional, sharp, and also boldly individual. Vocally, she was very strong, dueling fiercely with Ms. Ashford in "Take Me Or Leave Me." I didn't feel a lot of chemistry between the two (and honestly kind of forgot that Maureen and Joanne were a couple until they kissed in "La Vie Boheme"), although we sensed definite direction for improvement. And Hillary pointed out that the defining aspect of the relationship between Maureen and Joanne is the fact that they're so different from each other, and become compatible anyways...so it worked out in the end.

  • MJ Rodriguez as Angel

What We Expected: Neither of us had ever heard of him.

What We Got: In addition to Mimi, Angel was the character that we most enjoyed being portrayed by someone who looked the age of the young character! Mr. Rodriguez's voice is out of this world, strong and peppy and bright, and as previously mentioned, he took a noticeable lead in romancing Collins, which added an extra sweetness to his character. Along with Mr. Christopher, Mr. Rodriguez was also one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of the evening. (Random note: Angel no longer jumps onto the table in the middle of "Today 4 U," but Mr. Rodriguez still added a flair both physically and vocally that made the song an audience favorite.)

  • Matt Shingledecker as Roger

What We Expected: Mr. Shingledecker as Roger was perhaps the most shocking casting decision. I'd seen him a few years back as Melchior in the Spring Awakening tour; more recently, he'd stood by for Tony in the Broadway production of West Side Story. As neither of those roles are remotely similar to the vocals that the role of Roger calls for, I was very curious to see the new direction that the production was apparently taking with the character.

What We Got: If I'd had any idea that Mr. Shingledecker could sing the way he does as Roger, I would never have doubted his casting for a second. While at first I thought he sounded a bit like he was imitating Adam Pascal, and at times the gravely rock-edge he added to his voice sounded rough on his vocal chords, I was very impressed by his overall sound and the way he integrated his classically-trained voice into Roger's songs. And although we didn't want to label his Roger with the stereotypical descriptives "emo" or "sensitive," both words fit his portrayal well. His Roger, in act one, at least, is much more sad than angry; he finds Mimi attractive but can't permit himself to stop wallowing in the reality of April's recent death and his own impending fate. The fact that he's conflicted and upset with himself for wanting to move on serves to make the anger he shows in act two extremely organic. While the role of Roger could easily become one-dimensional, we felt that Mr. Shingledecker succeeded in his transcendence of that.

  • Ephraim Sykes as Benny

What We Expected: Neither of us had ever heard of him.

What We Got: Benny isn't the most flashy role in the show. With that said, because I don't want to understate Mr. Sykes' performance, he was very good, but didn't stand out in any particular way to me. His singing and acting both fit well with the rest of the ensemble. (On a random note, we were left wondering why costume designer Angela Wendt, who did the original production of Rent, had changed some of the characters' costumes but chose to keep Benny's iconic blue-and-green jacket.)

  • The Staging

After visiting the tiny space at New York Theatre Workshop earlier this year and seeing a show in the space where Rent was performed for the first time, it was pretty cool to experience the show in a smaller, more intimate theater than I ever had before. Mark Wendland's set design added a sense of tangibility to the world of Rent. In a jungle gym that was slightly reminiscent of Next to Normal (which he also designed), the audience got a more concrete idea of Mark and Roger's apartment, Maureen's performance space, and Mimi's fire escape. We can't wait to hopefully sit further back in the theater at some point to take everything in. The production also integrates Mark's film-making with a live-streaming camera (ala American Idiot's use of the same technology) to show the audience the tent city that's sprung up outside Mark and Roger's building and other locations; my favorite use of his camera, though, was during "Finale B" - when Mark screens his completed film, he projects live shots of each character onto the screens, rather than the production using pre-shot footage. One critique, though - lose the projections that flashed throughout "Contact"...because they were awkwardly reminiscent of what we'd guess an 80's porn film would look like.

  • The Orchestrations

The orchestrations, while for the most part not noticeably different from the originals, sounded ROCKIN' and did integrate new instrumentations at several points. We were especially proud to see Will Van Dyke's name on the cast board as the show's musical director, after having attended the concert for his debut album, Chasing The Day, at Le Poisson Rouge earlier this year. (Ironically enough, in our review of that night, we compared Mr. Van Dyke's style and enthusiasm in sharing his music to one Jonathan Larson.) This is clearly a huge step for Mr. Van Dyke's career - congratulations to you, sir, and keep doing what you're doing!

  • Other Random Notes We'd Like To Point Out:

- Ensemble member Ben Thompson, fresh from understudying Tunny in American Idiot, appeared as The Man...and now he has hair!

- As the "Seasons of Love" soloist, Tamika Sonja Lawrence made The High Note her own while still incorporating the original style of the solo. Major props to her.

- The best way to take us out of the world of the story and send us into peals of laughter at the most inappropriate moment? In the middle of Mr. Christopher's tear-inducing version of "I'll Cover You (Reprise)," sit in the front row, wait until he sings the line, "I know that they meant it [when they said you can't buy love...]", and shout reverently, "YES THEY DID!!" This actually happened.