When “Rent" stormed Broadway back in 1996, it was already a landmark. Its creator, Jonathan Larson, had died of a aortic aneurysm at age of 35. His death was on the day his rock musical updating the opera “La Boheme” was to begin previews Off Broadway.
That, along with months of anticipation and the fact that “Rent” was so contemporary, a gay-filled scheme set in the loopy, drug-saturated clime of Manhattan’s lower East Side, made it’s Broadway debut the arts event of the year in the Big City. I can remember vividly walking by the Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street in Manhattan at 8 a.m. It was amazing to see dozens of young folks lined up or, more accurately, slumped on the cold sidewalk, waiting for the box office to open so they could grab the $20 tickets in the first two rows.
“Rent” went on to run in New York for 12 years and then tour the world, a phenomenon of youth, desire, alternative lifestyles, an artifact of its time.
Now, it has returned here to Little Rhody in a strong, locally produced production by the Ocean State Theatre. Director/producer Aimee Turner has managed a 14- member cast, with an orchestra that is propelled with speed and commitment”
There are fine performances throughout. Dan McInerney and Nile Hawver are both strong singers and effective actors as two young guy hanging on in Manhattan back when things were rocking and AIDS was everywhere. Brown University graduate Nora Fox is a sweet, if overwhelmed Mimi, although her diction was less than fine. Janet McWilliams and Din Griffin head up the rest of the very good cast.
The set, all tangled and beat up and very practical, too, is by Kimberly V. Powers Lighting designer Weston Wilkerson’s set glows in purple, red, and yellow, a work of art in itself.
With all of that said, let me add that right from the get go of the original Broadway production I’ve had a – shall we say – minority opinion concerning “Rent.” Yes, it’s got some strong rock music. Yes, Lord knows, it’s got a great source in “La Boheme.” But essentially it is an empty show, a kaleidoscope filled with sound and fury and sorrow signifying not a whole lot. Just consider that the great heroine, Mimi, whose death in “Boheme”is almost unspeakably real, manages to come back from death’s door in this Broadway version. Enough said on that.
Also consider that what we are really talking about here are the self-inflicted troubles of a bunch of suburban kids who have gotten into their late 20 or 30s without really having impact, or drive, not to mention rent money, as they roll and rock from one garbage-strewn dead- end to another.
As we left the Nederlander Theatre back in 1996 a friend of mine announced – loudly – that “I guess I just work too hard to care about these people.” His shout- out brought laughter and agreement from a number of folks around us.
So, maybe, it’s an individual thing. And I can tell you that if you are among the many who love “Rent” why than take a look at the Ocean State Theatre production. It’s a good one. But it’s not for me.
Want to Go?
“Rent” continues at the Ocean State Theatre Company in Warwick through March 10th. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.
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