The award-winning Broadway rock musical Rent brought its 20th-anniversary tour, which launched in September 2016, to the Merriam Theater on Tuesday. The 1996 musical follows a group of friends struggling to survive New York’s Greenwich Village during the onset of the 1990s — also the height of the AIDS epidemic.
The musical touches on such themes as love, class, sexual fluidity, and the trope of the starving artist. It has earned a place in Broadway history, both musically (being one of the earlier musicals to employ a rock-based idiom) and thematically (breaking new ground with discussions of HIV/AIDS and other subjects all but untouched by other Broadway shows). The Kimmel Center run is sold out, reflecting that pride of place; a return engagement is planned for October.
Alas, this Rent did not live up to its reputation.
The set was impressive. Metal sculpture and mangy furniture portrayed an industrial, loft-style apartment and effectively imparted a sense of hardship and scarcity. The show’s opening number, “Rent,” was boisterous but anticlimactic because of pitchy vocals from the ensemble. Understudy Cody Jenkins stepped in to play Roger, one of the most prominent roles. (The usual Roger, Joshua Bess, is fighting a respiratory infection and was on vocal rest as of this writing but is expected back sometime this week, according to Kimmel Center staff.) That may be why the show didn’t hit its stride until the middle of the first act.
The show’s biggest asset is its production values. The lighting, the live band, and the sound were all remarkably good, especially during numbers like “Tango: Maureen," performed by Mark (Logan Marks) and Joanne (Lencia Kebede). The two broke out into a tango session that was tense yet gentle. It also helped that both actors were vocally impressive, showcasing the big vocal reaches the number deserved.
Javon King as Angel gave one of the most memorable performances with “Today 4 U." Angel is an HIV-positive, gender-fluid individual who meets and falls in love with Collins (Devinré Adams) but eventually dies from AIDS complications. “Today 4 U” is an energetic, percussion-thumping song that allowed King to show his acrobatic skills. King, in a pair of high-heel boots, used every inch of the stage. Every high kick, twirl, and leap seemed to be precise and beautifully timed. King also stood out as one of the cast’s most powerful vocalists.
There was a missed opportunity in the role of Mimi (Deri’Andra Tucker). Though Tucker was in full physical control, suggesting an extensive training in dance, her vocal ability left much to be desired. There was earnest effort in her renditions of “Light My Candle” and especially “Out Tonight." But her efforts missed the mark in songs that had much potential. She was only one of several vocally challenged singers on stage.
The show reached an emotional peak with the cast’s performance of the seminal hit “Seasons of Love" at the top of the second act. The entire ensemble sang, "Five-hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes” with bravery and authenticity that translated to the audience very well. Ad libs from Jasmine Lawrence were chillingly good and rightfully applauded.
Rent relies heavily on the context of the early ’90s, but that might work against the production in some ways. Our attitudes about HIV/AIDS and gender fluidity have changed so quickly they seem to have left Rent behind. It speaks of its own time, but not to ours.