It's important to disclose upfront that I'm not a fan of Rent, the Broadway phenomenon. It's bloated, it's too precious with its characters, and "Seasons of Love" is just a terrible song. That opinion does nothing to diminish the joy it brings to its many fans; it's just not for me. When you're old and bitter, all that youthful bonhomie is grating.
So how did co-directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy craft the hard-faceted and brilliant gem of a show I saw Friday night from the detritus that is Rent? The mind reels. Theirs is a Rent that is sharp, incisive and viscerally moving. These characters matter; their struggles to find themselves in the wastelands of their early twenties are a potent reminder of what it's like to feel lost in your own life, and that even small steps toward maturity can feel immense. In Miller and Dowdy's hands, Rent is a show that deserves every bit of its formidable reputation as the musical that revivified musicals for the next generation.
The plot is straightforward. A group of twentysomethings squat semi-legally in a building in the Alphabet City section of 1990s New York. They're all artists and performers, grappling with their numerous personal problems while they attempt to make their way as filmmakers, rock stars, etc. Gentrification is moving in, and the group will soon be on their way out. It's a race between the developers, drugs and AIDS to see what will claim them first. But for now they live, so they press on.
Collins (Marshall Jennings) and Angel (Luke Steingruby) establish an immediate rapport during "You Okay Honey?" Collins is an anarchist/college professor who's just been mugged, and Angel is a transvestite who aids him. Their mutual attraction is immediate and real; their genuine, unconditional love is the heartbeat of the show. While everybody else thrashes about blindly, these two sail smoothly right up to their inevitable end.
Mimi (Anna Skidis) and Roger (Evan Fournachon) do most of that thrashing. He's a recovering junkie musician who still mourns his dead lover; she's an exotic dancer who won't give up on him. Fournachon has a world-class voice and he lets it rip on "One Song Glory," an aspirational statement of the rock-star dream he still nurses. Skidis matches him with "Out Tonight," a trashy, '80s hair-metal rocker that burns down the stage. In the ruins wrought by Skidis' singular voice, the couple reaches one another during "Another Day." Behind them, an AIDS support group meeting stands to join them in the song; above them in the rafters, the homeless and the hangers-on are sucked in as well. Sixteen people — sixteen tired, frightened, lonely people — fill this microcosm of the world with song. It is a masterpiece of stagecraft, a composition as visually stunning as it is sonically powerful.
You'd think it couldn't be topped, but you'd be wrong. Late in the first act Maureen (Sarah Porter) delivers her performance-art protest against the developers. She claims the stage with a by-the-book Mannix action roll, then spools out a sub-Ann Magnuson beat-poetry version of the nursery rhyme "Hey Diddle Diddle." It's breathtakingly ridiculous, and Porter's po-faced delivery is complimented by her desultory back-up singers (Marcy Wiegert and Wendy Greenwood). It's a sublime counterbalance to all this serious business of growing up, and an amazing performance in a show that's packed with unforgettable moments.
I'm still not sold on Rent's "Seasons of Love," however. Go on, evict me.