There are only a few places in the world where a traveling production of “Rent” will find stiff competition from local talent. Unluckily for the show — which is currently at the Shubert Theater — New Haven is one of them.
To contend with Yale’s drama scene, the week-long engagement of “Rent” must bring a lot to the table, and it makes a valiant effort. In an odd reflection on its bohemian, counter-culture roots, “Rent’s” tried-and-true story of struggling artists in the East Village is bolstered by performers gleaned from the latest ultra-pop fads. “South African Idol” winner Heinz Winckler plays Roger Davis, the rather emo, HIV-positive guitarist. He manages to hold his own with a remarkably soulful voice, despite a certain unease on stage. But “American Idol” finalist Anwar Robinson, who reprises the role of Tom Collins, never quite rises to the level of most of the cast.
The fame of the two headliners pales beside the presence and vocal talent of Jennifer Colby Talton, who plays sexpot junkie Mimi Marquez. Her slinky moves and riveting voice draw out the best in each scene, and her duets with Winckler are heart-wrenching. Jed Resnick, too, as nerdy Jewish narrator Mark Cohen, shines in his duets, especially with Onyie Nwachukwu (as Joanne Jefferson) in the whimsical “Tango Maureen” number. Even the smaller parts are filled with gusto: Devon Settles, Jr., who plays a smattering of extras, is particularly noteworthy for his energetic, spot-on portrayals. There are weaker cast members, of course, such as Benny (John Watson), who seems to shrink on stage despite his overbearing role. But it is only in the New Haven theater scene — and with a show as classic as “Rent” — that the majority of performances seem good, and not great.
But even with the “hot” names and solid talent, “Rent” struggles to hit the right notes. Director Michael Greif has done little besides casting and staging changes to update the show from its Broadway incarnation, which originally debuted over 12 years ago and is closing this June. The live music, though expertly played, adds little color to the songs that many have listened to on repeat for years. The set, with its cobbled-together appearance and multi-purpose junk pile to one side, doesn’t feel fresh or exciting. And except for Mark, Roger, and Benny, who all look appropriately modern, the thrift-shop costuming underscores the show’s pervasive sense of been there, done that.
No doubt “Rent’s” many aficionados will argue that the feeling of recognition and familiarity is the sign of a true classic, but this traditional production does nothing to eliminate its increasing irrelevance and dated feel. The East Village setting, portrayed as a home to squatters and the bohemian underclass, is an anathema to young viewers, who are no doubt familiar with the chic and pricy modern Village. And audience sympathy for the characters’ belief in art and protest as solutions in and of themselves to the very real problems of homelessness and HIV/AIDS can no longer be taken for granted.
There is a growing gap between “Rent’s” realism — which has always been part of its appeal — and the reality that its viewers experience. This change is distinctive and insistent, though its character is somewhat hazy. Whether there is a new shape and color of idealism today, a shift in youth lifestyle and priorities, or new questions that are being asked about life and meaning, the difference must at least be acknowledged to preserve the core of truth that has made the show so popular. It seems that Greif made no attempt to mediate the distance between these two worlds, much less recognize that they are separate. The resulting production is one that must be taken with a grain of salt.
Of course, a little salt never hurt anyone. For “Rent” fanatics, the production is a welcome return to a beloved musical, and the Shubert performances do justice to the spirit of the show. For those who have never seen it before, it’s a chance to finally “get” what the craze is all about — and there’s no better time, because half-price student rush tickets are available for all showings.
Even if you hate it, there is at least one consolation: you can brag that you saw the “Idol” stars in all their bohemian glory.