How Do You Solve a Problem Like Rent?

The Aging Musical Gets a Makeover

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Rent?

Tracy Martin

‘RENT’ The old show gets new juice.

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It's awe-inspiring and almost unbelievable what the new production of Rent at the 5th Avenue Theater pulls off. Here is a musical so of its time that entire threads of the plot are distinctly dated. It's set in the early 1990s, and four of the principal characters are about to die of AIDS (two are gay men, two are heterosexual drug users). At the risk of sounding insensitive, these four have been just about to die of AIDS, and singing about being just about to die of AIDS, for nearly 20 years. They are like bugs trapped in amber, and since the disease they are dying from is no longer the death sentence it was, at least in America, the material has been drained of real-world urgency. Related problem: Like many people on their way to death, the characters express themselves very earnestly, but earnestness veers very easily into cloyingness, which gives Rent a whiff of cheesiness. The director Chris Columbus, who never met a hunk of cheddar he didn't love, made a 2005 film adaptation of Rent so cheesy and cringe-making I can't believe I just wasted a whole sentence on it.

But this production? This production is something else. It's inventive, it's wrenching, it's gorgeously sung, it's dirty in ways you don't expect, and it's teeming with new signs of life. The original staging on Broadway was so iconic and worked so well that redoing any of it takes guts. Director Bill Berry has guts: He stages half a dozen scenes in imaginative new ways, with a set designed by Martin Christoffel, and the effect is to pull characters into darker, more revealing dramatic moments than fans of the show have seen before. I saw the show in the late '90s in Los Angeles (with Neil Patrick Harris!!) and later in New York City and some time after that in Seattle (a touring production a few years ago), and never before have I seen Mimi shoot up onstage. And yet... why not? Mimi shooting up during the falsetto howling of "Out Tonight" propels the story forward (and explains the falsetto howling, and sets us up for her second-act overdose) better than Mimi doing light acrobatics down a metal staircase in baby-blue vinyl shorts, like she's done in every other production. There are no baby-blue vinyl shorts in this show, either: Costume designer Pete Rush gives the show a reimagined wardrobe.

And going in a different direction with the racial makeup of the characters means that supremely talented up-and-coming Seattle performers get to embody these characters, even though they don't look exactly like you remember the characters looking. Jerick Hoffer, known around town for his drag alter ego Jinkx Monsoon, brings his strange and hilarious mix of masculine and feminine vocal registers, his unerring sense for physical comedy, and his blinding white complexion to the role of Angel, traditionally played by a Latino. He glows. Likewise, Brandon O'Neill, playing Angel's lover, is not a black man like usual, but he doesn't need to be—and his chemistry with Hoffer is so sparky that by the time one of them is grieving the death of the other, the whole house is sobbing. (Or at least I was.) Aaron C. Finley (as Roger) just blows your face off with his singing, and Naomi Morgan (as Mimi) is no slouch, either.

Not casting a bunch of out-of-towners was a stroke of genius, because Rent's prevailing theme is the intimacy and intensity of urban life, where freaks and weirdos and DIY artists scratch out compelling alternatives to mainstream culture—and where an authentic close-quarters community can transcend the meager circumstances of the day to day. This is Seattle's very own tight-knit community of artists up there. That's why this Rent feels so authentic, transcendent, and sublime. recommended


Comments (12) RSS

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Great show last night - so glad to see it reworked.
Posted by glamgrrl on August 1, 2012 at 12:33 PM · Report this
I was 100% NOT going to see Rent until reading this review. Because, seriously, WHY STILL RENT. But now I'm curious to see what the local talent has done with it.
Posted by totallycarey on August 2, 2012 at 3:54 PM · Report this
Great review. Even better production. This team really put together an amazing show. We're extremely fortunate to have talent like Jerick Hoffer and the others in our town. MUST SEE!
Posted by Jack in Sea on August 3, 2012 at 12:58 PM · Report this
this is an upsetting remake. How are you going to change all the characters to white except the stripper. at least keep the characters racially correct but seeing how it was made in seattle and seattle is full passive aggressive racism. And why did Naomi Morgan take the part??? Is she blind to the racism and bad portrayal of non whites? Is she assimilated?? I did not like the remake. It was a disgrace. Maybe I am the only one who notices these things seeing how no one else commented on it or maybe most of seattle is fine with racism and casting non whites as strippers and prostitutes. Another example of Seattle's true feeling . The person who remade Rent should be mauled.
Posted by Forest on August 3, 2012 at 2:41 PM · Report this
Bauhaus I 5
Remember Lease from Team America?
Posted by Bauhaus I on August 3, 2012 at 11:41 PM · Report this
Wow! I wasn't planning on seeing this, but now I think I shall.
Posted by hedonist on August 4, 2012 at 5:32 PM · Report this
i don't know. i just saw this and felt disappointed. mimi shooting up is so concrete, as are the "real" packets of heroin being tossed about. It is so well understood in the original but perhaps concrete is what it takes these days. this may be the fifth time i've seen the play and most disappointing in this production is the lack of connection between angel and tom collins. the problem may be that brandon has played everyone, from alladin to whoever it was I have thankfully managed to block from my mind in the horrendous "Saving Amy", so now all I see is brandon. As my mom said, "it was kind of like going to a high school production where a few of the kids have real talent and then for the rest you do your best with what you have.
Posted by ilikedryahnixonthough on August 5, 2012 at 5:41 PM · Report this
@Forest- I was thinking the same thing!! Rent is one of a few well known, racially diverse, mainstream musicals and to make it an almost white cast is no leap forward!!
Posted by J Mase III on August 6, 2012 at 3:49 AM · Report this
It's NOT an all-white cast. The casting is just different than the original Broadway version. As for other mainstream musicals with racially diverse casts, we could start by naming one of the most iconic -- West Side Story. Of course, many contemporary musicals put race and ethnicity at the heart of their stories. In the Heights, Zoot Suit, Ain't Misbehavin', and The Wiz, all come to mind. But there are numerous contemporary musicals (Chorus Line, Chicago, Wicked, e.g.) that could be cast in a wide variety of ways, depending on the actors available and what the director wants to do with the show. The Broadway version isn't a mandate; it's just one way to do the work.
Posted by gdoodle on August 7, 2012 at 5:33 PM · Report this
As I keep saying, the difference between theater in New York and theater in Seattle is that in New York all the Scandinavian parts are played by Jews and in Seattle all the Jewish parts are played by Scandinavians.

It does seem odd to praise a show because it has a staff that is local.
Posted by NickN on August 10, 2012 at 11:55 PM · Report this
Aaron Finley as Roger giving the most cringe worthy performance in an otherwise great production of Rent.
Posted by MrA on August 16, 2012 at 1:52 PM · Report this
@Forest Seriously.? Kill yourself. You have the nerve to call this show disgraceful for no reason other than the ethnicity of the cast... and then you cry racism.? I suppose it's not enough for you that Jerrick and Naomi give their characters a level of credibility not seen in ANY of the previous productions. No, credibility be damned. You need a latino drag queen-- a white stripper. You ask, "why did Naomi Morgan take the part??" Perhaps(you self-righteous prick) she took the part bc (having once been a stripper and drug user herself) she knew she had that rarest of opportunities, the chance to use her incredible talents and the real-life experiences she lived through to give real believable life to a role she could own like noone else on this planet be they black, white, or indifferent. You focus on the color of the girl and not the character it takes to come from a real life Mimi kind of existence and claw your way out of the gutter and onto the stage of the 5th Ave Theatre. I won't even bother to touch on the fact that you have a problem with a real-life drag queen being cast as a drag queen. Shame on you, Forest. I hope you didn't get to see this show. You didn't deserve to...
Posted by MattMc on August 21, 2012 at 11:41 PM · Report this

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