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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
RENT
at New World Stages

IF IT AIN'T BROKE
By MATT WINDMAN

  Ph: Joan Marcus

How times have changed since 1996. Now you can buy candy and pre-order alcoholic drinks for intermission from your very seat while seeing Rent.
 
The lively East Village social scene depicted in Jonathan Larson’s much-beloved musical, the first written for the MTV generation, is long gone. CBGB shut down five years ago. Starving artists are unlikely to find affordable apartments even in Alphabet City. The Life Café, where the cast breaks into the loud and proud anthem “La Vie Boheme,” would have been turned into a Starbucks by now. And more importantly, attitudes on AIDS have evolved.     
 
But Rent hasn’t changed. Hardly a single line or note has been altered. Even if Rent is now a period piece set in the early 1990s, it remains a gripping, joyous and life-affirming piece of theater. Just like many other classic musicals, it will continue to live on and be revived thanks to the quality of its score and strength of its characters. I was particularly amazed by the number of young teenagers in the audience, who probably grew up listening to the original cast album, just as I did in middle school. 
 
Only three years since the Broadway production closed shop following a 12-year run, Rent has returned. But instead of Broadway, it can now be found at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages, which is already home to the former Broadway musicals Avenue Q and Million Dollar Quartet. What’s next? Perhaps Spring Awakening or In the Heights?
 
It’s still best to look at this production, which is again staged by Michael Greif, as a cosmetic rejuvenation of the original instead of a totally new revival. The material has not been significantly rethought or retooled in any noticeable way. But if it’s not broken, why fix it?
 
The production is in a more intimate space than before, and sports a high-tech, multi-level set design of metal cages and revolving platforms, along with new choreography and enhanced video footage and lighting.
 
But most important of all, the new cast is comprised entirely of young unknown performers, just like the original cast back in 1996. By the end of the show’s run, actors in their late 30s were regularly in the show.
 
Rent fluctuated violently in quality throughout its 12-year Broadway run. It wasn’t uncommon to find multiple understudies on at a single performance. And let’s not forget when Scary Spice played Mimi.
 
Even if the new cast members lack some of their predecessors’ idiosyncratic touches, they bring their own unique takes to the characters and approach the material with urgent intensity and incredible vocals. I can honestly vouch that the new cast, as a whole, is considerably better than any of the replacement casts I saw throughout the Broadway run.
 
Adam Chanler-Beret, for instance, portrays Mark in a giddy, upbeat vein that is completely different from Anthony Rapp’s tense jumpiness. Similarly, Annaleigh Ashford chooses to play up Maureen’s ditzy nature and pampered personality. 
 
Matt Shingledecker makes a full dramatic progression as guitarist Roger, starting out as downbeat and depressed and growing into violent emotion thanks to Mimi, played with both sweetness and sexiness by Arianda Fernandez.

 


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