For people who know “RENT” well, it can be tempting to turn a repeat viewing into an anachronism treasure hunt, if you will. The show is so precise in its mid-90s time frame that specific references spark inevitable reflections on how much has changed. Pay phones? Haven’t thought about those in years. Newt Gingrich’s lesbian sister? Heck, Oregon has a bisexual woman governor. The Village Voice? Sadly gone.
And how about a filmmaker using a film camera and then an actual, honest-to-goodness film projector to view a rough cut? He could probably do the same thing today on his iPhone.
But when I sat down with the 20th anniversary national tour — which by now is three years old — when it opened Wednesday at Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre, I tried to keep those stray, is-it-dated? thoughts from my mind. When it comes to the big picture, “RENT” is still as rousing, emphatic and emotional as ever. While a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS might mean something much different in 2019 than in 1996, when Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work changed the culture, the show’s exploration of sexuality, transgenderism, drug use, gentrification, income inequality and the demonization of the “Other” remains as vibrant and affecting today.
Some quick thoughts on the production:
No big surprises. Using Michael Greif’s original direction from Broadway, and even the “junk tree” from the original set, this is very much a faithful recreation of the show, at least in staging and tone. Still, a fresh crop of actors — who seem oh so young, but that’s probably just me feeling old — brings an enthusiastic vibe that banishes any thoughts of a dusty museum piece. When Lyndie Moe, as a raucous Maureen, delivers her “Over the Moon” number (itself a coy commentary on pretentious performance art), she does so with a vigor that must include strained muscles or, at the very least, a long session with the chiropractor.
The singing is excellent. Joshua Bess, as an emotionally sequestered Roger, brings a rock-star quality to his performance, but it never overwhelms the plaintiveness I could hear in his voice. (His “One Song Glory” is beautiful.) I’m a big fan, too, of Deri’ Andra Tucker as Mimi. Not only does she have the right moves — her near-acrobatics on the stairs in “Out Tonight” is a blue-blur delight — but she also brings a slightly smoky, distinctive quality to her vocals.
Angel has wings. Javon King’s portrayal of Angel, the big-hearted drag queen (well, except for the fate of Evita, the akita) is rich, textured and athletic. It’s one of my favorite Angels I’ve seen.
The commentary on social inequality is pungent. For those eternal optimists who thought that such issues as homelessness and the rich getting richer would have faded in the past 20 years, the reality is distressing. In fact, the stuff in “RENT” about fancy condos overwhelming neighborhoods and the fact of people living on the streets feels even more relevant today. I think it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking the musical was in terms of depicting characters on stage who were often forgotten. To see the ensemble’s homeless characters, dressed in their desultory parkas and ragged caps, suddenly launch into a series of ballet-like moves remains a startling moment in terms of its incongruity.
There are some straight-out beautiful moments in “RENT.” Maybe it’s because it’s been a few years since I’ve seen the show, but I was struck with things I hadn’t remembered from before: how Roger casts a big, powerful silhouette during “One Song”; the way the light creeps into a pure, white glow as the excellent ensemble sings “Another Day”; the moment when Angel’s arm falls limp as he’s carried in Collin’s arms. The show’s staging is inspired, and we shouldn’t forget it.
Is this production as good as other national tours (and the original Broadway production)? I’m not going to go there. This is a “RENT” for today. It feels like a production for a new generation. Would I someday like to see a completely restaged “RENT” with a different production design? Sure. I’d love that, in fact. But for now, just knowing there were people in the Saroyan audience who were there seeing the show live for the first time was enough for me.