REVIEW: Rent (NightBlue)

A “Rent” for the new century

rent

 NightBlue Performing Arts Theatre presents:

Rent

 

Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
co-directed by
Brian LaDuca and David E. Walters
at
Theatre Building Chicago through March 28th (more info)

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Rent – the 1996 rock opera about eight friends struggling to get by in New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood – find’s it’s power in its incredible music. It is the rock solid songs, packed with raw emotion and romantic tragedy that have kept Rent a musical favorite for the last fourteen years. Its success has sparked fascination with its edgy subject matter and the tragic story of its creator, who did not live to see the massive success of his magnum opus. Jonathan Larson, Rent’s author, died of an aortic aneurism the night before its first preview, giving haunting poignancy to the show, whose central message is to revel in the joy of life in the present, because no one knows what the future holds. For many of Rent’s characters, the future looks challenging: AIDS, homelessness, poverty and gender issues are all major themes in this groundbreaking musical.

The question for Rent now is, is it timeless? Will this musical endure as we trudge farther and farther away from the 1990’s? The answer remains to be seen: Rent is less than twenty years old, and it’s hot button issues of HIV/AIDS, homelessness and sexual liberty are as provocative in 2010 as they were when the musical opened. But with it’s decade specific soundtrack and aesthetic, it needs open minded theater-makers to keep it from becoming “Rent: The Totally 90’s Musical!”  It needs companies like NightBlue, whose production of the show is respectful without being tied to the famous original production.

NightBlue’s Rent  is “Rent for 2010”. From it’s paired down set consisting only of a wooden loft and a pay phone, to it’s young, amazingly natural performers, this production looks back from the other side of the millennium, without forgetting how we live now.

rent-poster It’s not common to see performances one would classify as “natural” in musical theater, but the young actors in Rent have taken NightBlue’s mission of “performing naked” to heart (not literally). Especially during Roger’s (played here by perfectly cast Chris Froseth) Act One aria in which he dreams of finding “Glory”, by writing one great song before dying of AIDS. In this version, Roger sits alone and accompanies himself on acoustic guitar, and the effect is powerful and sentimental, void of the uber-90’s power-ballad vibe that plagues the original cast recording. Jonathan Hymen has a laid back, best friend quality that makes him a great pick for Mark, the eyes through which the audience meets the cast of characters. Hymen is especially good during the first act, when Mark’s fun, youthful demeanor is nicely showcased with songs “Rent” and “Tango: Maureen,” a duet with smart actress Whitney White, who’s Joanne is driven and sassy without being overbearing. Playing her love interest, Maureen is the lovely Diane Mair, whose classy version of “Over The Moon” gives depth to a silly song. Act one closer “La Vie Boheme,” misses the mark here, unfortunately. Awkward, cluttered choreography diminishes the impact of this boisterous ode to the life of the artist.

Act Two never entirely recovers from the “La Vie Boheme” energy suck. The actors have worn themselves out by the time it begins, and the production loses energy. There are a few exceptions: the fight song between feuding lovers Maureen and Joanne “Take Me Or Leave Me” manages to be catchy yet full of tension, and Collins’ (played by the almost perfect Brian-Alwyn Newland) touching reprise of “I’ll Cover You.”

Rent has a special meaning in 2010. Healthcare worries, matched with the economic downfall make this musical about extreme poverty and AIDS intriguing. Sadly, Johnathan Larson isn’t here to create new works based upon the current crises; we have to rely on responsible theaters like NightBlue to protect the work he did create. Luckily, co-directors Brian LaDuca and David E. Walters have the sense and talent to protect Rent by making it their own, and thus, making it relevant.

 

Rating: ★★★

One Response

  1. […] “A ‘Rent’ for a new century!” – Chicago Theatre Blog […]

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