Rent. At the Arlington Theatre, Tuesday, February 20.
Reviewed by Sarah Hammill
When Rent made its stage debut
in 1997 in New York City, it was almost immediately heralded as the
musical for the MTV generation. Taking on some of the most pressing
issues facing American culture in the mid ’90s — including
homosexuality, transexuality, HIV/AIDS, and modern urban
poverty — and putting them to a modern rock soundtrack made the
production an instant success.
Cut to the year 2007. As the old saying goes, the more things
change, the more they stay the same. Although the themes of
Rent are still as current as ever, many of the details of
the show’s production are surprisingly dated. For instance,
significant portions of the plot are based on land-line telephones
calls and answering machine messages, with not a cell phone
anywhere to be seen. The cast’s striped sweaters and patched jeans
scream 1997. And the song “What You Own” is about the
disintegration of American culture at the end of the 20th
Nonetheless, the heart of Rent is as relevant as it
ever was, and the new challenge becomes finding ways to keep the
play fresh. Some of Tuesday night’s performers were better at this
than others. Tracy McDowell (Maureen) and Chante Carmel Frierson
(Joanne) both did excellent work bringing their characters to life
while staying true to Jonathan Larson’s original vision. Harley Jay
(Mark) tried a bit too hard at this, turning Mark into a caricature
of Anthony Rapp’s original version of the character. And though
Melvin Bell III looked and danced like Angel, his voice wasn’t
quite up to the challenge. Only Declan Bennett — who played the
part of Roger — attempted something different with his character.
Although he over-sang a few of his songs, Bennett’s British rocker
vocals were a nice change from the more traditional Broadway voices
that have sung the part before.
All in all, however, Warren G. Nolan Jr. (Collins) took the cake
for transforming an otherwise awkward moment (his head-mounted mike
died right before his farewell song to Angel) into one of the most
breathtaking solos of the evening. Mike in hand, Nolan started out
“I’ll Cover You: Reprise” hushed with grief and climbed his way to
the emotional heights of the song with as much hope and anguish as
it deserved. It was the finest moment of the night and was a
testament to Rent’s continued and enduring legacy.