THEATER REVIEW: “Rent” @ Playhouse Square by Roy Berko

Through Sun 3/25

The history of American musical theater is laced with firsts and trendsetters. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma introduced the well-made book musical in which a story was told, with music, lyrics and dance all integrated, and setting the pattern of the first act ending with a conflict that would be resolved in the second act.

Hair introduced the rock sound to Broadway shows and took on societal beliefs, challenged the status quo and opened the door to shows which broke from the traditional mold including Company, GodspellRocky Horror Show and Pacific Overtures.

Jonathan Larson’s Rent, broadly based on the Puccini opera La Boheme, took on the series topics of AIDS, economic disparity, and sexual and gender orientation. It ushered in the era of “thinking” musical theater and became the godmother to Next to NormalIn the HeightsThe Color PurpleThe Scottsboro Boys and Fun Home.

Rent centers on the psychological and sociological attitudes of the lower East Side of New York at the turn of the 21st century.   Larson stated that, from his viewpoint, ”traditional society was thwarting the hopes and dreams of the MTV generation.”

He supposedly chose the title Rent, not only because a major conflict in the storyline centers on paying rent but that the term also means “tearing apart,” which was what was happening to the relationship between varying segments of the culture.

The somewhat autobiographical story centers on the conflicts of gentrification of the home of the bohemians and drug worlds as the setting for his examination of love, loss, illness, sexual and gender angst, and everyday existence.

Unfortunately, Larson never lived to see his musical become a multi-mega hit, which twenty years after its opening, is still bringing in sold out crowds as it crosses the nation on yet another tour. He never knew he won a Pulitzer Prize. Larson died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm the day before the first preview of the show.

When I saw the show shortly after it opened in New York, I was blown away by the message, the intensity and the score. Follow-up productions have usually brought about the same reactions. I wish I could say the same about the 20th Anniversary Tour production.

The show on the Connor Palace stage lacks the intensity and dynamics need to make Larson’s ideas ring true. The young cast has excellent singing voices but generally lack the acting chops to develop the necessary character depth and story identity. They are not helped by uncreative directing.

There is a lack of emotional connection between Destiny Diamond (Mimi) and Logan Farine (Roger) which places a damper on the love story, one of the basic story lines. Their “Light My Candle” flickers, rather than flairs. “Without You” lacks emotional passion. Farine seems more authentic in his shared scenes with Sammy Ferber (Mark).

Aaron Alcaraz is one of the show’s bright lights as the cross-dressing Angel. His “Today 4 U” is well done, as is “I’ll Cover You” sung with Josh Walker (Collins). The second act opening song, “Seasons of Love” is well sung, as is the playful “Tango: Maureen.”

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: The 20th anniversary tour of Rent disappoints. In spite of the wonder of the Pulitzer Prize winning script and score, this staging lacks the intensity and dynamics need to make Larson’s ideas ring true.

Rent 20th Anniversary Tour runs through Sun 3/25. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to playhousesquare.org.

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association and Cleveland Critics Circle]

 

 

 

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