As I have previously alluded to, Rent was written by Jonathan Larson in 1995 in attempt to immortalize the lives of his friends and fellow artists who were living amid poverty, addiction and disease in the Alphabet City neighbourhood of New York City. He honoured their bohemian lifestyle in this musical about seizing whatever time you have left and infusing every minute of your life with love. Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal played Mark Cohen and Roger Davis respectively in the original (and quite legendary) 1996 Broadway cast and they have both returned to their roles for the Broadway Tour which plays at the Canon Theatre until January 24th, 2010.
This was the third production of Rent (the musical) that I have had the fortune of seeing following a 1998 production in Toronto and a Broadway production in 2004. It has been some time since I have last watched the 2005 film version directed by Chris Columbus, or since I have listened to either of the cast recordings and so I found that in watching this particular production, Larson’s music and especially Michael Grief’s direction, had a renewed freshness for me. I was especially struck by how haunting and gorgeous particular harmonies were and how, regardless of how many times I hear it, “Seasons of Love” keeps sending chills down my spine. Gwen Stewart, another veteran from the 1996 Original Cast, reprises her soloist role in this song with enough gusto and pure talent to knock you headlong off your seat.
Michael Grief’s direction of Rent is very interesting because from a 2010 perspective, it seems so obviously suited to a mid-nineties avant-garde off-Broadway rock musical for a small venue. There are times when the actions depicted onstage are more suggestive than they are realistic and the stark darkness and raw seediness that permeates throughout the space, even to the point of having it purposefully unclear where particular voices are coming from, and scenes being crowded and action getting a little lost as a stylistic choice is, even by 2010 standards, rare for a theatre as big as the Canon. I appreciated that Grief did not offer us a glamorized “Broadway” version of this story, but instead he allowed there to be some roughness around the edges, which remains even fifteen years later. Marlies Yearby’s choreography gives Rent’s music an added pulsing heartbeat of joy. Specifically during the numbers “Santa Fe” and “La Vie Boheme” the casts’ movements reflect Larson’s lyrics so brilliantly and give each individual character the chance to shine through.
The cast that has been assembled for this tour is exquisite. Michael McElroy has a beautiful soulful Baritone voice as Tom Collins, the sweet anarchist and ex-roommate of Mark and Roger who returns to New York and meets Angel, the love of his life. His performance is equal parts blissful and heartbreaking, the latter especially when he brought the house to tears with “I’ll Cover You (Reprise).” Angel, exuberant, passionate, and wildly fun, is played with the ultimate panache by Justin Johnston, whose Angel won my heart as soon as she leapt effortless from the floor to the top of the table. Merle Dandridge is a feisty, powerful Joanne, who commands the stage and who is obviously a competent, shrewd and merciless lawyer. Her performance of “Take Me or Leave Me” with Nicolette Hart’s Maureen is absolutely epic. Hart is hilarious and unique as Maureen and I appreciated her departure from Idina Menzel’s iconic portrayal (in the original cast and reprised in the film). Hart infuses Maureen with even more than her usual zaniness and establishes a nice familiarity with Rapp’s Mark, which was distinctively flirty and implied that, perhaps, she was not entirely finished with him yet. Hart performed Maureen’s performance piece “Over the Moon” with the utmost in hilarity and fervour. Lexi Lawson’s Mimi has a powerful voice which clinches both “Out Tonight” and “Light My Candle” perfectly. What I found especially captivating in Lawson was the way she moved, with utter precision and isolation, as though she were continually moving her body one joint at a time in succession. It was quite mesmerizing.
It was a joy and a privilege, and to be maudlin but honest, a dream come true, to see Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal in this production. There is something magically iconic about seeing Mark’s scarf and Roger’s plaid pants and feeling connected to this tradition that began fifteen years ago with these same two actors. They are also exceptionally talented. Adam Pascal’s voice is better than ever in this production, it soars with incredible richness and intensity and he has an especially heartbreaking moment at the end of the show where he infuses the word “Mimi” with power, regret, fear and longing. Anthony Rapp gave the funniest performance as Mark that I have ever seen, and I realized how important it is for the narrator of what can be an intense and sober show, to have an inclination toward absurdity in things like tangos, and the penchant towards silliness while dancing on the table at cafes. He brought the house down when he held his line “La Vieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee Boheme” for what may be a record-breaking long time. Together, Rapp and Pascal have fantastic chemistry; their characters have a beautiful, unspoken closeness about them that is simple, pure and inherent. Watching them perform the title song “Rent” is the stuff of legends, but watching them perform “What You Own” might blow your mind.
There is a line in Rent that speaks to “connection in an isolating age,” and I fervently believe that today in 2010 we live in an isolating age. Rent is about connecting, to ideas, to people and to art. In a world where we can sit home alone and chat on Facebook, watch youtube videos on our iphones and create our own virtual worlds on Farmville, one of the easiest ways for us to truly start to connect with one another is to attend live theatre. Seeing Rent may be a good place to start.
Rent: The Broadway Tour plays at the Canon Theatre (244 Victoria Street) until January 24th, 2010. For more information please call 416.872.1212 or visit www.mirvish.com.