JewishBoston.com: The Legacy of Rent

Originally posted on JewishBoston.com.

The New Repertory Theatre in Watertown has dedicated its 2011-2012 season to the theme of Legacy, so it’s fitting to open the season with the rock musical Rent. One of the longest-running musicals of the post-Phantom generation, the original production closed on Broadway in 2008 after a twelve-year run. It’s been filmed twice and already revived off-Broadway, but the rights for local theater companies to put their own stamp on the show have only recently become available. The story of the show, a retelling of La Boheme set in the West Village of the early 1990s that owes as much to Green Day as it does to Puccini, will forever be wrapped up with the story of its creator. Jonathan Larson, the young composer, lyricist, and writer of Rent, died on the night before Rent played its first performance. The cast dedicated that evening’s performance, and every performance to his memory.

Larson was well aware of the power of legacy present in his show, even not knowing how his own tragic story would infuse the musical’s own story about the legacy of art and relationships with added emotional resonance. From his reliance on an older story to his adherence to (and occasional, purposeful breaking of) the musical theater rules established by his idols and mentors, Larson understood that Rent would not stand alone — in a best-case scenario, it would assume a place in musical theater history. The landmark original production guaranteed that would come true, but productions like the one at the New Rep, testing the waters of whether Rent can succeed with other visions guiding the show, is an important next step. 

created at: 2011-09-13Unfortunately, this production does not make the case for a reinvented Rent particularly well. While director Benjamin Evett should be commended for attempting an original Rent, not beholden to the Broadway production etched on so many minds, the result is an unsatisfying mishmash of moments that never coalesce into something bigger.

At its best, this Rent thrills and inspires. Aimee Doherty, as performance artist Maureen, ignites the protest piece “Over The Moon” into a tour de force of comedy. In this version, Robin Long, as her put-upon lawyer lover Joanne is in full view struggling to keep up with the technical elements of Maureen’s show, which elevates the scene from a comedy bit to an important window into their relationship. When the friends gather to celebrate after the show and John Ambrosino as Mark launches the anthem “La Vie Boheme,” one can’t help but feel chills at a musical doing what musicals are meant to do.

However, moments like that when the characters coalesce into a community are too few in a show that should be about just that. Despite a strong ensemble, this Rent feels like a collection of vignettes rather than the story of a group of friends who become a chosen family. Todd C. Gordon’s musical direction does the production considerable disservice, with a band that handled the more traditional musical comedy numbers fine but struggled with the rock, techno, and other contemporary sounds the score requires. Microphone and monitor problems at the performance I attended further diminished the musical quality of the show. And while choreographer Kelli Edwards can be commended for trying to make Rent dance, the movement ranged from awkward (“Today 4 U”) to bizarre (“Will I?”).

If you’re curious to see a Rent  that breaks the mold, this production will certainly meet that need, and you’ll have plenty to talk about after the show, from the nude scene (which works surprisingly well) to Mimi (Eve Kagan) shooting up on stage (which doesn’t). But if you’re hoping for the uplift that comes from a bunch of outsiders discovering that together they form an “us for once, instead of a them” as the song goes, you may find yourself disappointed.

Rent is playing at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Charles  Mosesian Theater, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA 02472, through September 25. Tickets are Full Price $28-$63. Seniors $7 off full price. Student rush $14. Call: 617-923-8487 or buy online at www.newrep.org.

Photo of Aimee Doherty as Maureen by Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures.

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