Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Michael Greif
It's been three years since Rent ended its Broadway run, history's ninth longest. But that blackout's brevity hasn't discouraged the original production's producers from soliciting the original production's director to revive the 90s' signature popera for Off Broadway. Even the show's logo remains the same; Rent hasn't been reimagined so much as resurrected, but it's also been reinvigorated by an enthusiastic young cast (in case your most recent memories of the show are of the 2005 movie, which featured the too-old original cast). Loosely based on La Boheme, Rent moves the action to the corner of 11th Street and Avenue B as first-wave gentrification on the Lower East Side (er, East Village?) gave way to second. A door key in the Puccini is here a bag of heroin; HIV-AIDS supersedes consumption. Rent has eight major characters, half of whom are infected. Eschewing the scathing politics of a work like 1985's The Normal Heart, which recently ended its first Broadway run, Rent tackles AIDS from an earnest emotional angle, and it's a deeply moving work—made more poignant by the untimely death of its writer-composer Jonathan Larson at 35 from a heart condition just before 1996's original Off Broadway opening—about loving and being loved, about finding joy and hope amid the ostensible despondency of rapidly approaching mortality.
It's not just immunodeficiency that would give the characters cause to despair. The pre-Giuliani city in which they live is practically post-apocalyptic, overrun with poverty, homelessness and drug addiction—and it's beginning to snow. (The Christmas setting could be ironic, given the pervasive desolation, or it could underscore the show's battle-scarred optimism.) It's as though Manhattan itself has AIDS. A nouveau riche developer wants to build "a digital, virtual, interactive studio" atop the site of a tent city; the show's sympathies lie with the squeegee men. (Smartly, though, Rent gives its disenfranchised characters a voice, allowing one bag lady to call out the good-guy bohemians for exploiting more than helping her.)
Fifteen years later, a show full of penniless kids bumming around Manhattan seems quaint, which this production subtly acknowledges; Angela Wendt's costumes makes the cast look a little more L train. And New World Stages' relatively cramped stage—shorter than the Nederlander's—provides a little intimacy, which helps make the show's stylized bohemia a little more palatable. ("La Vie Boheme"'s proto-hipster catalog of "cool" is still insufferable.) The young actors reflect the inclusive spirit of the material—black, white and Latino; straight, gay and drag queen—and together, despite a few weak links, exude the charm of young people passionate for social justice and romance. Their likability is essential to the show's success: Rent needs you to care about its characters so you'll feel bad for the tragedies they'll endure; then, it can make it all better. Not just one dead character but two spring miraculously back to life before the lights fade to black. Rent is about dying in America at the end of the millennium. But death isn't an end; if you're not revived by curtain call, just give it three years.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)