Like most of the millennials/echo-boomers hovering around the age of 30, my affection for musical theater was defined by “Rent.” At 14, it was the first two-disc CD set I’d received. I wore out both discs (and perhaps my stereo) listening to it over and over again. Like “A Chorus Line” and “Godspell” and “Hair” and “West Side Story” before it, it became the defining sound of a generation of theatergoers, transmogrifying the concept of the rock musical and ascending to the realm of the iconic. Between the ubiquitous imagery and persistent tours of the legendary original production (playing, to this day, in slightly altered form at off-Broadway’s New World Stages), it’s hard to find a theatergoer under the age of 40 without strong feelings about Rent.
And Bristol Riverside Theater’s staging, playing through June 3, certainly takes this into account. Jose Zayas’ direction fluctuates between slavish recreation of prior incarnations of the show and brief moments of original interpretation. When it works, it’s exhilarating and goosebump-inducing, and when it doesn’t, it comes across as a third-or-fourth-iteration carbon copy of a once-beloved work. This is a production of “Rent” that feels a little short on the careening momentum and energy necessary to achieve the arresting greatness the material requires. I can’t deny, however, that even though this vision of “Rent” feels like it’s running on a half-tank of gas, it’s still got more than enough sparkle to be worthy of consideration.
A reimagining of Puccini’s “La Boheme” set against the boho background of the Alphabet City neighborhood of New York in the early 1990s, “Rent” is an anthemic musical of AIDS, artists, commercialism, and coming of age. Its writer/composer Jonathan Larson designed it as a conversation about his life and friends in his late 20s and early 30s; his tragic death from an aneurysm on the eve of the show’s premiere became part of the mythic propellant that drove “Rent” into its monster hit status, and its triple crown of the Drama Desk, Pulitzer, and Tony awards.
Rent wraps the pathos and panic of life as a starving artist up with a contemporary, throbbing rock sound, and that’s the soul of its charm. And it’s there that this production flounders a bit on its technical aspects. Keith Baker’s music direction is even-tempered and fine, but it seems out of sync between band and singers, and lacking the just-this-side-of-chaos push to match the energy of the material. Coupled with that, amplification issues were present throughout at the performance I attended; much of the subtlety in delivery is lost in a slow-on-the-take on-and-off of microphones.
With that in mind, there are several members of the cast worthy of admiration. Brit West’s Mimi is an incandescent firecracker, grounded in her sly and desperate soulfulness. Tracie Franklin’s Joanne, a well-heeled young lawyer recently sucked into this whirlwind world of art and suffering through an equally whirlwind relationship, is brassy and full of an appealing blend of doe-in-the-headlights naivete and steely resolve. The whole of the ensemble, in fact, is strong, in an assortment of roles from riot cops to the bemused parents of the main characters to a ferocious, show-stopping bag-lady. And Jamila Sabares-Klemm, as the newly Sapphic performance artist Maureen, is a charmer through and through, a flirt who cares little about the consequences of her actions until the costs become apparent. Sabares-Klemm also illustrates an interesting point of this production: in the role that made a star out of Idina Menzel (prior to “Wicked” and “Glee”), she opts to go in a completely different direction, impish and coy where Menzel was erotic and edgy. While both held the right amount of humor and humanity in their roles, finding a new interpretation that works brings a new life to this Maureen.
Carrying that through this production, “Rent” is at its best when it finds ways to be both true to the material and new in its interpretation at the same time — and its largest missteps are found when it falls into overt homage or recreations of the original production. Frustrated musician Roger (Mark Willis Borum), and beleaguered documentarian Mark (James LaRosa) are written as the heart and soul of Rent, and neither quite soars to that height. Borum’s voice is well-trained and balanced, past the point of being too controlled and polished for the role, and LaRosa appears to attempt a third-generation caricature of the original interpretation by Anthony Rapp; all the moves are there, right down to the suburban upstate New York twang in his voice, but there’s nothing to root the role in, and it comes off as soulless. The same holds true for Julian Alvarez’s angel, a street-drummer by day and boisterous drag queen by night. Alvarez has the high kicks and looks down for the roll, but is, once again in this production, missing that wellspring of energetic fire that brings with it authenticity and emotion.
The counterpoint to all this comes when Zayas returns to the source material and uncovers a gem; midway through act two. Roger and Mimi’s duet “Without You” tracks three of the show’s key relationships as reunions and pain come into play against one character’s end-of-life event. Compared to the original production, the staging is elegant, simple, and heartbreaking, and the choice to strip down the orchestration and let the moments of this beautiful piece play out is astounding. I found my breath caught in my chest, and wondered why the whole production couldn’t have been handled with such care and insight. There’s talent to be found throughout this “Rent,” and it’s enough to make it fun to watch. There’s a promise, though, of something more, and that goes staunchly unfulfilled.
“Rent,” Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Through June 3. $30 to $50. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org