(2011 Revival)

Book Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Michael Greif
New World Stages
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

I’m always at a loss for what to say about Rent. I’ve seen it several times, I’ve tried my best to be a fan, but the best I can do is admire certain aspects. Generally I find it to be a narrative mess with haphazard characterization and periodically attractive music. (My original review of the off-Broadway engagement is here; my prediction for its future was, as you’ll see, not one of my more prescient calls.)

               The—I can’t call it a revival with a straight face, it’s more of a “bring back” after a deceptive hibernation of a few years—makes me more uneasy about the show than ever, though. Without the high octane and in some instances iconic casting of the original production, the somewhat “re-imagined” iteration that opened off-Broadway at New World Stages (the latest show to follow a recent trend in which shows that have concluded their first-run Broadway lives migrate to a mid-range house in the NWS complex, which though technically off-Broadway, is still dead midtown on 50th Street, just below 8th Avenue) seems only to exacerbate the fuzzy storytelling, because there aren’t sufficiently sharp personae to keep things popping and help you keep track. Too, original director Michael Greif has staged it exactingly enough (yet again) on a redesigned set—less black-box suggestiveness, more tenement skeleton, and commensurately more cramped—that doesn’t help. Anyway it didn’t help me. But the cast goes at their appointed task with gusto. And as with every time I’ve seen it before, the audience goes nuts.

               But the nature of the audience enthusiasm, which included a good deal of anticipation and approval of nuance, indicated the familiarity of fans, repeat attendees grateful for another fix. I’m not saying that newbies can’t and wouldn’t be susceptible to Rent’s spell—again, though I’m puzzled by the enormity of its allure, I would never seek to deny it (or even staunch it)—but I’m not so sure I was in what I’ll call, for lack of a better phrase, an “authentic” house. And I wonder how the exact same production with the exact same cast would go down for a crowd that knew little to nothing about the show, other than maybe a song or two. Assuming such a crowd even exists. Or will in the foreseeable future. It's hard to imagine one, for Rent is too much of a youth culture watershed to be in danger of fading into the background anytime soon. And there are still those enthusiasts who excuse its messiness because of its compensatory—and this is almost always the phrase used—“raw power.”

               If you’re one of them, go forth and have a great time. If you’re not, stay home and avoid a frustrating time. It’s Rent, folks. It’s beyond good or bad criticism. And while I cannot speak for any distant future, in this new millennium year of 2011, you already know how you feel.

               Cultural phenomena are like that…

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