I have a friend who's a millennial and who likes the movie version of Rent. I give him endless crap for it, so naturally he's the person I invited to see the 20th anniversary tour of Rent that's playing at the Paramount through February 26.
Rent is a tough case because it has not aged well. The material is dated and kind of annoying, and yet if you were a gay teenager in the '90s who cared about musicals, it was inescapable. I was a gay teenager in the 90s who cared about musicals, my high school girlfriend (long story) used to play the soundtrack in her mom's minivan nonstop. The lyrics of "La Vie Boheme" are imprinted on my frontal lobes. Later, I saw Neil Patrick Harris sing "La Vie Boheme" in an LA production. Not to brag or anything.
In 2012, the 5th Avenue theatre did a production of Rent that was "inventive," "wrenching," and "sublime," as I wrote at the time. It was as if the 5th Avenue scooped up all the talented freaks in Seattle's contemporary musical-theater scene and had them put on the show. Jinkx Monsoon played Angel (brilliantly). The exciting thing about that production was watching a local enclave of artists breathing new life into this show about an an enclave of artists in the early 90s. But this new touring production never really makes a case for itself, and there isn't anything exciting going on. In fact, a lot of the show felt rushed and rote, like they were trying to go through the motions as quickly as possible.
Mimi and Roger lack chemistry, even though the actor playing Roger, Kaleb Wells, has an amazing voice. (His "Mimiiiiiii!" in act two was poignant and perfectly on key.) Angel and Collins lacked chemistry as well (granted, understudies were filling in for both roles in the performance I saw). If Roger and Mimi, and Angel and Collins, lack chemistry—as any Rent nerd knows—you don't have much of a show.
That said, the actor playing Joanne, Jasmine Easler, was a revelation. Talk about a voice. Talk about presence, chemistry, and star power. This is her first national tour as well, according to the program, and I have a feeling it's not going to be the last time we hear about her. Too bad Joanne is not a leading role.
My argument to the millennial who prefers Rent the movie is that the thrill of Rent is the vocal performances, which are only thrilling if you see them live. Somehow standing in the lobby of the Paramount at intermission, my argument didn't seem supported by the evidence. This production has great vocal performances, and somehow it's not enough. It doesn't transcend the cheesiness, the datedness, and the annoyingness of the material. We strongly weighed leaving at intermission while standing next to the bar, where they were selling $5 Rent brownies.
We decided against the brownie. We also decided to stick it out through act two. Two decisions we later regretted. Gosh, maybe Rent the movie is the only way to properly appreciate Rent these days.
But the song Collins sings in act two? The one that always makes me tear up? It made me tear up again. Like always.