by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Michael Grief
The New York Theatre Workshop
70 East 4th Street / New York, NY 10003 / (212) 460-5475

Reviewed by David Spencer

When I entered the New York Theatre Workshop to see "Rent", the new rock opera patterned loosely after "La Bohème", it was with a certain degree of enthusiasm. I have a very personal connection with the opera myself: my first serious professional gig in the theatre was writing the English adaptation and lyrics for the Public Theatre staging of Puccini's masterpiece, at the Anspacher, six blocks from NYTF. I also entered feeling a sense of poignancy about the event, since its author/composer, Jonathan Larson died of a sudden aortic aneurysm the day before the show's first public preview. In itself, this is tragic enough, but compounded with the fact that "Rent" has been in development for several years, had an industry buzz about it, and was culminating in this staging, it becomes positively nightmarish for a fellow musical dramatist to consider. The business is tough enough. The desire to make glibly soulful comparisons to Larson's fate and that of "Bohème"'s Mimi is hard to resist.

I left the theatre in an altogether different mood, thinking–of all things–of something written by Stephen King, over a decade ago, in The New York Times Book Review:

"My favorite crime novelist [he wrote]–often imitated but never duplicated–is Jim Thompson. Thompson was rarely reviewed, but when he was, he was excoriated. I was in fact originally attracted to him by a review that called `Cropper's Cabin' `unbearably repulsive.' I immediately wanted to read that book, figuring anyone with enough energy to get a reviewer to call his work `unbearably repulsive' must have something going for him."

By that not unintelligent standard, my review of "Rent" should send you to the theatre in a mad, breathless gallop. No, I didn't find it unbearably repulsive. And in fact, in more than a few passages it shows its author to have been terribly talented. But the showcase for that talent left me in something not far from a bleeding rage. I'll tell you why in a minute.

Before I do, though, a note of caution. I've mentioned in these cyberspace pages my philosophy of drama criticism–which, among other things, requires the critic to abstract his bias and feelings from the event itself and acknowledge those occasions when he cannot speak as a consumer advocate for audiences in general; when, in fact there is palpable evidence that a significant portion of the audience (observed and therefore also potential) does not (and will not) share his view. Such would be the case with "Rent". It was volubly enjoyed by many.

I wanted to scream too. But for entirely different reasons.

"Rent", fittingly enough, transplants modern version of the "Bohème" denizens to the East Village. With the exception of Mimi and one other, the author renames all the main characters preserving only the first initials of the originals: video artist Mark Cohen (Anthony Rapp) for painter Marcello, pop songwriter/guitarist Roger Davis (Adam Pascal) for poet Rodolfo; sexual libertine and performance artist Maureen Johnson (Idina Manzel) for coquettish Musetta; and cyberspace philosopher Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) for philosopher Colline. The aforementioned "one other" is Schaunard. Angel Schaunard (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), who is Collins' drag queen lover.

As in "Bohème", the bohemians are having problems scrounging up the rent for their landlord. But in this case, he is not a clone of the weasly buffoon Benoit, but rather a sharp yuppie, who used to be one of their roommates, Benjamin Coffin III (Taye Diggs). He makes a deal with his ex-roomies, though. He'll let them skate on this year's rent, and all future rents, if they'll put a stop to a demonstration tonight (Christmas Eve, by the way) in front of the building, which will ruin his sale of it to a condo developer. The demonstration is being led by Maureen.

Paralleling the Illica-Giacosa libretto for "Bohème", Maureen is Mark's former lover. The difference here is, she left him for another woman, a new character altogether, named Joanne Jefferson (Fredi Walker). That relationship is still very much a present (if rocky) concern, and Mark questions how much influence he may actually have over his ex-paramour. It is on this night that Roger meets Mimi (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a latino spitfire (her last name is Marquez) with a flickering candle and smoldering sexuality. In this version, she's HIV positive.

So's Roger.

So are half the main characters.

The good news, obviously, is that author/composer Jonathan Larson has not used "Bohème" as a beat-for-beat breakdown of his own version. He has taken its various elements (along with, it seems to me, some formerly unmusicalized elements from the much more complicated Henri Murger novel on which the opera was based) and put them through a Mixmaster, developing them differently, meting them out in different proportions, musicalizing them in different moods and combinations.

The bad news is, in execution, it often feels as if it went through a Mixmaster. Structurally, it is a rambling mess. Plot elements are introduced and then abandoned in favor of city life montages, only to be picked up later without warning, after narrative tension (and urgency) has dissipated.

Lyrically, it feels rushed and sloppy, even lazy. (I'm talking about laziness of thought here, to be distinguished from a lack of industriousness; I've no doubt that Mr. Larson worked hard.) Rhymes come tumbling out arbitrarily, without much regard for periodicity (the natural pauses in a musical phrase) or individual character diction.

And musically...well, it gets more complicated here. There are many very attractive sections, some genuinely inventive, interspersed throughout sections that are comprised of tired and familiar pop-rock riffs. But in the end, the score for "Rent", typical of many rock theatre scores, has a decidedly retro imprint: for all its muscular youth-of-today posturing, it would not have sounded out of place in "Hair".

Taking the numbers as numbers, without nitpicking over craftsmanship, per se, there are some interesting notions. (One especially memorable one is a turn for Mimi, a sultry heavy-rhythm seduction in which she declares that she wants to be taken "Out tonight." The word "out" is set as a diphthong, leaping from a lower note to its octave above, making the word sound like a wolf's howl: "Ow-ooot tonight." It's a first-rate concept given a near first-rate execution and a first-rate performance.) But the majority of the material lacks these inventions–so, in relief, the good stuff seems less like islands of quality than high profile gimmickry. I hasten to add, Larson may have written the thing with utter sincerity–but to me it had a kind of deadness at the center.

Worse, it feels dated, not just in individual choices, but in its presentation of a specific kind of youth-rebellion subculture. Even the rampant spread of AIDS among its characters has a disquieting lack of importance. A conveniently trendy reference that does little to camouflage a late 60s-1970s sensibility.

All this, however, might be shrugged off but for "Rent"'s truly unforgivable sin. Which is that it utterly fails to touch. Either as a retelling of "Bohème" or on its own terms. And incidentally: I'm not entirely sure it holds up on its own terms, either. Its weak storytelling would seem even weaker if you didn't know the original.

Director Michael Greif's production is done on a mostly bare stage with rehearsal props and the odd catwalk and stairway; and the 15 member cast (huge for off-Broadway) is energetic and very talented–and almost entirely new information. So it doesn't surprise me that "Rent" is appealing to many audience members in its downtown environment. Like another less-than-adequate musical of last decade, Galt MacDermott's adaptation of "The Human Comedy" at the Public Theatre, it's something of a spectacle in its particular geographical context, and it's in sync with the gestalt of the producing organization.

But like "The Human Comedy", which unwisely moved to Broadway and bounced on the first available weekend, "Rent" similarly seems ill-equipped to survive out of its element. There's talk of a commercial transfer. I won't be brazen enough to predict that it won't take hold–I've been surprised before (the revival of "Grease" is a jaw-dropper on a weekly basis)–but the Powers That Be will have to gauge its potential audience very carefully.

As you will have to gauge your place among them...

For another view:
Go to Adasha Greenwood's review of the Broadway re-opening
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