Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Now of Legal Drinking Age, 'Rent' Retains Its Powerful Lease on Life With Due Delight -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Oriental Theater, Chicago
Thru May 14

Rent opened on Broadway on April 29, 1996, a few months after its Off-Broadway bow coincided with the sudden death of its 35-year-old creator Jonathan Larson, who wrote the music, lyrics and book with a storyline gleaned from Puccini's La Bohème.

Though I was in New York that November and had noted some hype about the rock musical--perhaps the most prominent since Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar decades prior, though the influence of The Who's Tommy hitting Broadway in 1993 shouldn't be overlooked--I didn't yet care enough about musical theater to try to score a ticket to the latest hottest show. (Though I did get a TKTS booth ducat for Sunset Boulevard.)

My relative lack of theatrical passion also precluded me from getting to the first national tour--which I'm surprised to now note ran in Chicago for a full five months beginning in November 1997--but not long after a Teri Hatcher-led tour of Cabaret rekindled a love of Broadway that has brought me to over 800 shows since, I first saw Rent in September 1999.

Photo credit on all: Carol Rosegg
I instantly loved it--I can't recall if I bought the cast album before or after, but soon and still know every word--and would see another tour in Chicago in 2004, catch the show on Broadway near the end of its run in 2008, attend a 2009 tour featuring original cast stars Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, and greatly enjoyed a 2011 community production in my hometown of Skokie, IL. (I also own the 2005 Rent movie and a DVD of the show's last Broadway performance.)

In this 2012 list, I ranked Rent as my 8th favorite stage musical of all-time. It might be a tad lower now but I think it holds up as the most important musical of the 1990s, and though its current weeklong run--far too brief, given the fully-packed first night--wasn't in my Broadway in Chicago subscription series, I was eager to see it with my similarly rabid pal Paolo (and another friend).

And surprised that it had been so long.

Arriving at the Oriental Theatre for the 20th Anniversary Tour of Rent--a moniker now a year outdated--I was pleased not only to encounter a full house, but many patrons who likely weren't born before the show was.

Though Rent is very much a show set in--and rather emblematic of--the late 20th century, Larson's material in strong enough in all regards for the material to still resonate quite well, even for those who didn't experience the virulence of the AIDS epidemic or don't care about the La Bohème parallels.

It's worth remembering, however, that Rent hit Broadway before Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay on her Ellen sitcom in 1997 and prior to Will & Grace bowing on NBC in the fall of 1998.

If there were openly homosexual characters on TV prior to that--Jm J. Bullock on Too Close for Comfort comes to mind--they certainly weren't commonplace. 

Featuring several LGBT characters--representing each of those letters--who are open, frank, physically intimate and, in some cases, drug-addicted and/or stricken with AIDS, Rent thankfully doesn't feel all that shocking or controversial today, but it wasn't simply the rock score that made the musical so groundbreaking and noteworthy in 1996.

But there will be always be artistically-inclined and immensely-talented young people in the world pursuing their passions despite considerable resistance, struggle and--particularly in Manhattan, where the show is set--ever-exorbitant rents, while finding strength and solace through love, communal camaraderie and fight-the-power protest.

So in the unfortunate age of Trump and what his minions represent, Rent still holds quite a rather forceful currency, even if we are no longer "living in America at the end of the millennium."

And while I am often ambivalent about non-Equity tours--mainly because I'm all for actors being substantially paid, at union rates at least, but also because more seasoned, perhaps Broadway-credited actors can theoretically deliver higher quality performances--the themes of Rent conflate rather well with a group of young performers getting their first big breaks.

Plus, this "20th Anniversary Tour"--with Evan Ensign directing based on Michael Greif originally having done so--began in September (and will run until at least June), so not only must the actors have been quite impressive to make the cast, even if some were pulled straight outta college, they've presumably honed their talents on the road.

There were certainly a few cases Tuesday night at the Oriental where I didn't find the vocal timbres to quite match my memories, whether of previous Rent productions or the Original Broadcast Cast Recording.

But there were no discernible examples of anyone not doing justice to the stellar material, and I found those in the roles of Mark (Danny Harris Kornfeld), Roger (Kaleb Wells), Mimi (Skyler Volpe) and Collins (Aaron Harrington) to be demonstrably good.

David Merino is also strong as the drag queen Angel, though perhaps a bit less so vocally than in the rest of his kinetic performance. (Mind you, I was sitting in the very last row of the cavernous--and always amazingly ornate--Oriental Theatre.)

As Mimi, Skyler Volpe handled "Light My Candle," the overtly sexy "Out Tonight" and the "Another Day" duet with Roger particularly well, while Aaron Harrington's Collins was vocally stellar and poignantly emotive, particularly on the "I'll Cover You" reprise in Act Two.

There are numerous narrative strains in Rent--including a romance between Maureen (Katie Lamark) and Joanne (Jasmine Easler), both well-played--and several other songs worthy of mention, but I don't feel the need to regurgitate all that here.

Rent is one of the best musicals ever created and an eternal touchstone of its time. And though this didn't quite strike me as the best or most electrifying rendition I've ever seen--with even a few technical glitches--it's more than good enough to provide a powerful introduction to new fans while delighting those of us who have been Renting for years.

Not surprisingly given the size of Tuesday's crowd--and there's no reason Rent shouldn't renew its Chicago lease later this year--tickets seem quite sparse on Ticketmaster and not discounted on HotTix or Goldstar.

But if you really want to go, it looks like there may be some scattered singles available at the box office, and you might see if the listing on TodayTix can save you a few bucks.

Otherwise, though there is--as frequently, forcefully and forever poignantly imparted in Larson's score--"No Day But Today," if there truly are no spaces available for Rent, take heart in knowing the 25th anniversary tour is now just 4 years down the road.

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