When Rent first opened I was freshly transplanted to the East Village from the Midwest. I arrived weeks before it opened, and was mildly curious about this edgy little musical playing at the New York Theatre Workshop. I didn’t go, though, and didn’t make it to the Broadway production, either. Instead I first saw it in Boston and Philadelphia, when a friend was in the first national touring company. By this time I was a confirmed East Village gay boy (at a time when that still signified something) and found a lot in the show that resonated with me – and nearly as much that I found a little silly and inaccurate.
Rent tells the story of a group of young artists struggling in New York’s East Village in the early 1990’s as they deal with AIDS, poverty, creeping gentrification and homophobia. This revival, helmed by original director Michael Greif but with new staging and designs, attempts to correct some of the those inaccuracies, focusing more squarely on the realities of bohemian East Village life circa 1991.
Especially strong in that regard are the subtly adjusted musical arrangements by Steve Skinner and Tim Weil, which have a stronger flavor of the indie rock and punk prevalent at that time and place. when I saw the show, the usually excellent sound designer Brian Ronan hadn’t quite found the right balance yet – we missed some of Jonathan Larson’s always pungent lyrics, a problem completely unknown in Ronan’s Tony Award-winning work on The Book of Mormon.
Angela Wendt’s revamped costume designs are more appropriately thrift store-ish; her designs for the original were more chic than these kids could afford. Oh, and yes these actors seem to be more genuinely in their late teens and early 20s than the original cast, a terrific choice on Greif’s part. Particularly good is Adam Chanler-Berat’s clear-eyed, sweet and smart take on budding filmmaker Mark Cohen. Larry Keigwin’s choreography literally gives the songs a fresh, muscular kick in the pants.
This new Rent is certainly refreshing in all kinds of ways, but hadn’t quite settled into its new Off-Broadway home when I saw it in August, and I hope the then-still-apparent kinks have been worked out.
For tickets, click here.