Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know the story of Jonathan Larson and Rent?  About how aspiring musical theater writer/composer Jon spent years trying to make a name for himself only to encounter setback upon setback until finally, on the eve of Rent’s first off-Broadway preview performance, he passed away suddenly, only days before his thirty-sixth birthday… About how Rent got rave after rave in the New York press and won Jon posthumously the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical—and countless others too numerous to mention…  About how Rent went on to become the seventh longest-running show in Broadway history…

Rent finally ended its Broadway run on September 7 of last year after 5123 performances and though news of its closing was greeted with much dismay, for this reviewer at least, it was good news.

“What?” you may be asking. How on earth could that news possibly have been good?

Let me explain.

From the moment the First National Tour of Rent began in 1997 and for the next eleven years, there were never more than two actors (and their understudies) performing the roles of Mark, Roger, Mimi, Angel, Collins, etc. at any one time in the U.S.—those in the Broadway cast and their touring cast counterparts. This meant that for over a decade, countless talented young musical theater performers never got the chance to appear in Rent, and the only directorial vision ever seen (however great that may have been) was that of its original director, Michael Grief.

Rent’s closing opened the show to regional theaters across the country, to hundreds upon hundreds of up-and-coming triple-threats, and to directors finally allowed to put their personal stamp on the show. Musical Theatre West’s Los Angeles regional premiere of Rent, directed by the never less than brilliant Nick DeGruccio, is a perfect example of this, and it is exciting indeed to see DeGruccio bring his vision of Rent to fruition and to witness his supremely talented cast sinking their teeth into the iconic roles which Larson created.

As most people probably already know, Rent takes Puccini’s La Boheme as its starting-off point, telling the story of a group of young “bohemians” living in the mean streets of New York in the late 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Would-be filmmaker Mark (Beau Hirshfield) serves as narrator/observer, commenting on the lives of Roger (P.J. Griffith), his aspiring songwriter roommate; Mimi (Sabrina Sloan), the Cat Scratch Club exotic dancer whom Roger falls for; drag queen Angel (Jai Rodriguez) and philosophy prof Collins (Mel Robert), who fall in love; Maureen (Callie Carson), Mark’s bisexual performance artist ex-wife; Joanne (Nicole Tillman), Maureen’s lawyer girlfriend; and Benny (Andrew Johnson), Mark and Roger’s ex-roommate and current nemesis. The cast is multiracial and multicultural. Roger and Mimi are HIV positive.  Angel and Collins have AIDS.  “AZT breaks” punctuate the show at frequent intervals.

Larson’s songs (“One Song Glory,” “La Vie Boheme,” “Seasons Of Love,” “Take Me Or Leave Me,” etc.) were unlike any others previously heard on a Broadway stage, with a pulsating rock beat and gritty lyrics, and the plotlines, revolving around straight, gay, and bisexual characters, many of whom were living with HIV or AIDS, were as current as the day’s headlines. Rent revolutionized the Broadway musical, much as Oklahoma! and West Side Story had in their day.

During Rent’s final years on Broadway and on tour, “Rentheads” (those youthful fans who made seeing Larson’s rock musical a weekly if not daily habit), began complaining that performances had gone stale, with actors in search of a steady paycheck returning again and again to roles they’d grown tired of, and “names” brought in for stunt casting value.

Thus, if there’s anything that distinguishes MTW’s Rent from its previous incarnations, it’s the fresh energy and total commitment its fifteen young cast members bring to the project.  These are musical theater triple-threats giving 110% of themselves … and more. Credit goes equally to the multiple award-winning DeGruccio, who brings not only his visual conception to vivid life, but inspires authentic acting from his gifted cast.

Nowhere is this more the case than in the phenomenal work done by Griffith in the role of Roger. A perfect choice for the role (as anyone who saw his rock star performances in The Who’s Tommy or Setup And Punch can attest to), Griffith’s stellar work here comes from the heart and the gut, and his singing, never anything less than powerhouse, comes from the perspective of an actor and not just a vocalist. I guarantee you, you won’t have seen a better Roger than Griffith.

Hirschfield likewise is an absolutely marvelous Mark, instantly likeable as the group’s “observer” and the strongest singer I’ve yet heard in the role.  Sloan too is likely to get “best Mimi ever” comments about her sizzling, heartfelt performance. Equally authentic is Robert’s work as Collins, his rendition of the “I’ll Cover You” reprise one of the evening’s most gut-wrenching and beautifully performed moments. Carson is so darned cute as Maureen that you can’t help but like her, even in Maureen’s not always sympathetic moments, and her hilarious take on the “performance art” piece “Over The Moon” is both original and Broadway-worthy.  Tillman is the first Joanne I’ve seen to actually make me believe.  Her singing is powerful and her chemistry with Carson palpable.  Johnson has less stage time as Benny, but he manages to make Rent’s villain more three-dimensional on stage than he is on paper.

Finally, there is Rodriguez, the production’s biggest draw (given his Queer Eye For The Straight Guy TV star status) doing positively wonderful work as Angel. Though diehard Rodriguez fans doubtless know of eighteen-year-old Jai’s Broadway debut as Angel in Rent or his endearing performance in the title role in Zanna, Don’t!, Queer Eye viewers may be surprised to discover how much more Rodriguez is than simply a “Culture Vulture.” He sings Angel to perfection, acts the role with genuine heart, has amazing rapport with Robert, and looks prettier in Angel drag than just about anyone else you can imagine.

The rest of the cast (Alex Alvarez, Valerie Rose Curiel, Nick Lorenzini, Amber Mercomes, Michael Sky Moon, Jeffrey Scott Parsons, Anna Schnaitter) prove their ascending star credentials again and again.  Watch each of these performers when they’re not center stage and you’ll see total commitment to the parts they are acting on the sidelines, in addition to their gorgeous voices and remarkable dance skills.   (Dance captain Mercomes gets bonus points for her soaring “Seasons Of Love” solo.)

Sets (provided by Plan B Entertainment) and costumes (coordinated by Yolanda Rowell) appear to be the fine original Broadway designs. Everything else in MTW’s Rent is “from the ground up,” beginning with DeGruccio’s spanking new direction, and going on to Alisan Porter’s choreography, Michael Paternostro’s musical direction, Steven Young’s lighting, and Julie Ferrin’s sound design.  Porter’s imaginative choreography features high-energy dance sequences and accompanies “Santa Fe” with a particularly striking, beautifully performed “street ballet.” That Paternostro’s last MTW gig was his currently Ovation-nominated performance as Carmen Ghia makes his sensational “Renaissance Man” work here as music director/keyboardist all the more noteworthy.  It goes without saying that Young and Ferrin’s designs are terrific.

Anyone who has ever seen and loved Rent before owes it to him/herself not to miss this Los Angeles Regional Premiere production.  Anyone who has had mixed feelings about Rent owes it to him/herself to see this production. The same can be said for anyone who’s never ever seen this iconic Broadway show (if there are any of you out there). Under DeGruccio’s direction, MTW’s Rent soars. Trust me.  It’s not just L.A. Rentheads who will be in Rent heaven during Rent’s all-too-brief two week run.

Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
December 12, 2009
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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