Three years after closing an award-filled 12-year Broadway run, Jonathan Larson’s vibrant, influential rock musical Rent is back in New York City in an Off Broadway production that didn’t so much leave town in 2008 as go on a diet and tighten its belt. The struggling musicians, artists, addicts, activists, and HIV/AIDS patients who love and work and suffer and share the zeitgeist of the late 1980s in Manhattan’s then rotting (and now chic) Lower East Side are back. Only now they’re played by a new, unfamous, and ardent cast — just as they were in the beginning, when original cast members including Anthony Rapp, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jesse L. Martin, and Idina Menzel were themselves still unfamous.
Now Adam Chanler-Berat (Next to Normal) is Mark, the filmmaker who shares a heatless apartment with Roger (Matt Shingledecker), a musician and ex-addict coping with HIV. Arianda Fernandez (returning to the role she took in Rent‘s national tour) is their neighbor Mimi, the stripper and addict drawn to Roger; MJ Rodriguez sparkles and bangs on drumsticks as Angel, the loving drag queen with AIDS; Nicholas Christopher is Angel’s activist lover, Tom Collins; Annaleigh Ashford is Maureen, the flirtatious bisexual performance artist who’s also Mark’s ex-girlfriend; Corbin Reid is Maureen’s current girlfriend, Joanne. The cast is all fine, with Rodriguez perhaps finest of all as the aptly named Angel. They all blend, these young bohemians. They all sing well, although I’m nostalgic for the old days — I mean the old days when performers weren’t amplified to a blur.
The set (designed by Mark Wendland) still depicts a series of doors and fire escapes and bare-bones rooms conveying the rough, cheap, dangerous Lower East Side of two decades ago, but now every detail is a bit more spare to suit the new Off Broadway venue, New World Stages. Michael Greif once again directs (as he did when the production was first developed at New York Theatre Workshop in 1994, and then when it officially opened at NYTW in 1996, and then when it moved to Broadway later that year). And Greif picks up where he left off, moving the action up and down and around the multilevel set with the actors demonstrating the bursts of energy and despair befitting starving artists and frightened victims of a disease then on a killing streak.
Rent 2011 isn’t reenvisioned and it isn’t quite a renovation, either. Maybe it’s best called a reconstruction, one that offers newcomers a faithful interpretation, provides returnees with a memory jolt, and inevitably affects each ticket holder according to his or her age and nostalgia levels. Larson, who tragically died of an aneurysm at the age of 35 the day before his masterwork opened at NYTW, created a show that evokes many of the contradictions of living in New York in the 1980s. It was a time of tremendous struggle and medical fear as well as a period of creative freedom and communal tenderness. Ironically, that freedom was made possible, in its own bohemian way, by the will to live (cheaply!) under a threat of viral death. B+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)