Opening Nights: Rent

The 5th found a scrappy cast, but it still feels like a period piece.

How much do I like Rent? Well, when we buried my mother on the very day Barack Obama was elected president, I chose “Seasons of Love” to close her funeral. If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.

That said, there’s much else to recommend about this revival of the Pulitzer-winning 1996 musical, including a scrappy, mostly local cast that blends better than any of the four previous ensembles I’ve seen. There’s also an earnest effort to mine what little humor can be found in Jonathan Larson’s bleak period piece (inspired by Puccini’s La bohème), set in New York at the nadir of the AIDS epidemic among those we might today call the 99 percent.

However, director Bill Berry has also coated Larson’s often-naked rage with a thick sheen of nostalgia, and not all art should be prettified. I miss the grit and spit that made Rent such a relevant hit in its heyday. In fact, Berry’s Rent calls to mind the touring production of Hair that visited the Paramount two years ago, a lighter-than-air confection of silly psychedelia. Both shows are now historical curios that, in order to fill big houses, soften their politics—here meaning homelessness, drugs, and HIV—in favor of pure entertainment.

And yet taken on its own merits, I’d rather watch Berry’s Rent-lite every night for the remainder of its run than sit once more through Chris Columbus’ emotionally bankrupt 2005 film adaptation. What Berry gets right here is very right, indeed. He and musical director R.J. Tancioco elicit one pitch-perfect performance after another from the vocally well-matched cast.

That ensemble includes Aaron C. Finley as frustrated musician Roger, Naomi Morgan as his smack-addict dancer girlfriend Mimi, Logan Benedict as their slumlord schoolmate Benny, Brandon O’Neill as anarchist Tom, and Daniel Berryman as filmmaker/witness Mark, here given a WASPy outsider spin. Particular standouts for me were Jerick Hoffer, ringing all the right bells as drag queen Angel and looking like the child of Ziggy Stardust and Wilma Flintstone; and Ryah Nixon as Mark’s ex, Maureen, who offers the best “Over the Moon” I’ve yet heard onstage. Sadly, star-crossed lovers Finley and Morgan can’t quite get traction in their duets. Despite fine voices, they’re so far apart emotionally that you’ll wonder if the Seattle Freeze originated in the East Village.

In Daniel Cruz’s choreography, dancers weave in and out of Tom Sturge’s lighting like flecks of color in a kaleidoscope. The show faithfully reflects composer/librettist Larson’s original mélange of influences—a delicious clash between Broadway melodies and grunge-era pop punk. But why the live five-piece band is so muted is a mystery to me, especially having heard other musicals fill the 5th with glorious cacophony. Rent is a rock musical. Why not crank it?