KPBS AIRDATE: July 23, 1997
MUSIC, up and under : “Seasons of Love”
525,600 minutes. “Rent” celebrates a year in the life of friends. And 500 performances on Broadway. And ten weeks in San Diego. The show arrived in a ‘blaze of glory’: from the Obie to the Tony to the Pulitzer, this is the most heralded Best Musical in decades. A rock-opera for the millennium.
Inspired by Puccini’s “La Boheme,” the piece is as loosely structured as “Hair” (to which it’s frequently been compared, even by its composer), as insightful as “A Chorus Line,” as rockin’ as “Tommy,” as honest and earnest as “Angels in America.” Like that mind-bending century-marker, it’s not just about gays and AIDS, or even starving artists. It’s really about love, valor and compassion, to coin a theatrical phrase. Not to mention friendship, loyalty and community.
MUSIC up and under: “Rent” intro.
It’s young and it’s hip; it’s loud and brash and fun and in-your-face. It trumpets youth, energy and impetuosity, but it’s not just for the young. It has something to say to us all.
Unfortunately, the brilliant young creator of “Rent” never got to see his dream fully realized. Jonathan Larson died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm, at age 35, just before the show went into previews last year. That tragedy has helped catapult “Rent” to even higher heights.
So, is this West coast premiere — staged by the award-winning director of the original, our own Michael Greif of the La Jolla Playhouse — equally worthy of accolades? Well, yes and no. But mostly yes.
The show has so much heart; it’s hot and throbbing and pulsing with life. This production’s got all the funk and energy you’d ever want, but it isn’t an aggressive, New York energy, and this is a decidedly downtown, East Village, New York piece. Leigh Hetherington’s Maureen, for example, the bisexual performance artist, is much more Valley Girl than Village girl, though she’s enormously sexy, and has arms as lithe as a pair of snakes.
Like the original New York cast, there’s a mix of theater veterans and newcomers. Sometimes, it shows. The sharpest, clearest, best-honed talent belongs to Neil Patrick Harris, as the geeky but engaging filmmaker Mark, and TV’s Wilson Cruz, who is sweet, stunning, vocally show-stopping and positively luminous as the aptly-named Angel, drag queen extraordinaire. He’s an amorous partner for Collins, movingly portrayed by Mark Leroy Jackson; of the three couples center-stage, they have the most loving and enviable relationship.
Sexpot Maureen and her down-to-earth, lawyer/lover Joanne are erratic and tempestuous. But the real, pulsing electricity has to flow between Roger and Mimi, and that’s where this production loses power. There is no chemistry between Julia Santana and Christian Mena. She’s irresistible in her painted-on plastic pants; he barely seems to notice; he looks shleppy, not sharp, and just plays one angry note. Neither one is quite up to the full vocal or acting range demanded of their roles.
But overall, the singing is excellent, the emotions run high. Larson’s lyrics really touch you at times. And his music stays in your head for days. The staging, framed as a rock concert, straight to the audience, is MTV to the max, and a thrilling relief from the spectacle-ridden, pyrotechnic, mega-musicals of the eighties. The moves do get a bit repetitive at times — on the table, off the table, fold the chairs, open the chairs. But nothing beats the choreography for Mimi’s hottest number, sliding on a bar, kicking down a stairway, howling at the moon in “Out Tonight.”
MUSIC up: “Out Tonight”
The triumph of the play is that you get so caught up in it; you grow to love these characters, to care what happens to them. To applaud their creativity and their successes, and even to “Moo” with them when Maureen asks. You want to know them better; you want them to live. You want to spend some wild, wacko time with them.
MUSIC up: “From “La Vie Boheme”:
“The opposite of war isn’t peace; it’s creation”
Most of all, you want to join them in hailing the bohemian life — La Vie Boheme.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
MUSIC: From “La Vie Boheme”:
“Viva La Vie Boheme!”
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.