The cast of Rent. Photos by Carol Rosegg
Book, Music & Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Director Evan Ensign (restaging based on original direction of Michael Greif)
Review by Kathi E.B. Ellis
Entire contents are copyright © 2018 Kathi E.B. Ellis. All rights reserved
Jonathan Larson’s Rent took up occupancy at the Kentucky Center for the Arts for part of this weekend, a stop on the ongoing 20th Anniversary Tour of the 1996 musical. This version is a reasonably faithful iteration of the original, with several key creatives returning to the production.
Partly because of this faithfulness, both the strengths and weaknesses of the original are reflected twenty years on. It is still an energetic and intimate homage to life in the East Village in the 1990s. And now, even more, it is definitely “about living in America at the end of the Millennium” – these characters clearly pre-date 9/11 and Obergefell vs. Hodges, for example. Act One is still ten minutes too long. The parallels to the inspiration of La Boheme, through the lens of 1990’s New York, are still smart. The patchwork of scenes and treatises still jostle against each other in ways that make it challenging to connect to this ragtag group of friends and (former) lovers.
What made Rent revolutionary when it premiered at New York Theatre Workshop, itself part of the community Larson lived in and wrote about, is now part of the fabric of contemporary musicals. Now that we’ve seen Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot, and Hamilton, to revisit Rent is to be underwhelmed by the presentation of a rock opera, few traditional book scenes instead relying on operatic recitative, and contemporary language regardless of period.
Not that that bothered any of the Rent-heads in the house on opening night who greeted key characters and moments with an approving roar and boisterous applause.
The big hole for me in this production is the emotional heart of Larson’s story. I’ve seen one of the early tours that the Broadway in Louisville series brought to Louisville’s Palace Theatre in the late 1990’s, clips of the Broadway version and, most recently, a local company’s production. [Spoiler Alert if you’re not a Rent-head:] The death of Angel and the near death of Mimi should move us. This week I was not moved. Mimi’s plight did not generate any sympathy from me, and the emotional devastation between Angel and Tom Collins was mired in the busy-ness of the vignettes with Maureen & Joanne and Roger & Mimi playing out at the same time.
Promotional materials list Evan Ensign as the director restaging the production based on the original direction of Michael Greif. And the show looks very much like the original, but replicating movement and visuals doesn’t get us to the emotional kick that lurks under the rock band’s drive and witty rhymes in the lyrics. Maybe the death of Larson right before Rent originally premiered gave artist and audience alike the reality check of living moment to moment, those “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes”, imbuing the occasion with enough gravitas to get to the core: what Collins tells us Angel taught us – how to love.
This young cast works energetically and enthusiastically with the material, but with the exception of the popular “Seasons of Love” there isn’t much love for the audience to latch on to. There are some lovely voices, particularly Kaleb Wells (Roger) and the female soloist in “Seasons”. The supporting ensemble is facile with the various roles they play, especially the voice mail sequences (though they are soon to become museum vignettes!) But what kept Maureen and Joanne together eluded me, Roger and Mimi’s connection was erratic, and the Benny subplot was more distracting than I remember. Why did Marc want to memorialize a year in these lives? I was looking for messily compelling and awkwardly passionate answers that weren’t there in this production.
February 16 – 18, 2018
PNC Broadway in Louisville
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY, 40202
Kathi E.B. Ellis is an associate member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and a member of Lincoln Center and DirectorsLabChicago. She has attended the La MaMa Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding southern artists. Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for South Florida theatre’s Carbonell Award. Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and part of ShoeString Productions, an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’ textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.