In 1998, as part of a high school graduation present, I spent a few days in New York City with my mom and caught Rent on Broadway, where it had been the talk of the town.
Even then, only a few years after its opening, the bloom was already starting to fall from Rent's rose. With the shock of its subject matter and the tragic death of creator Jonathan Larson wearing off, it was starting to feel like the over-earnest bohemian schmaltz later parodied in the film Team America: World Police with the number "Everyone Has AIDS" The dreadful 2005 film adaptation directed by Chris (Home Alone) Columbus and featuring the original cast in their mid-30s further dinged Rent's reputation.
That's not to say Rent is necessarily bad; it's just that years later, with productions everywhere and "Seasons of Love" a staple of high school show choir, it doesn't have the impact it once did for being a Pulitzer-winning musical with gay lovers, drag queens and AIDS. The City Stage/ Broadway South production at the Progress Energy Center's A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater shows how the show has aged, but fortunately it also reminds audiences why Rent had such an impact in the first place.
Rent has been through a number of iterations over the years (a touring company with original cast member Anthony Rapp played the Durham Performing Arts Center last year). This production features a set that faithfully evokes the original set, though some choices made in the production highlight the book's weaknesses.
As Mark, Paul Teal delivers his narration in a way that's more straight-talking than sing-talking, and there are plenty of moments where the rhyming dialogue falls flat because the delivery is more spoken than sung. It's unclear whether this was a choice by director Justin Smith, but the sometimes painful rhymes are highlighted when the actors attempt to make it sound like something people would actually say to one another.
The performers who work best in the show are the ones with the greatest physical presence; Blaine Mowrer as Angel walks off with the show in the "Today 4 U" number. As Mimi, Brittany Daniels (of the local band Madd Elaine and the indie horror film Forbidden Woods) looks about as Latina as Matthew Perry, but she shows off a powerful voice and slinky moves with "Out Tonight." She shares a strong chemistry with William Day's Roger, who has the brashness necessary to pull off his frustrated punk persona.
Of course, the biggest knock against Rent is that time has passed its New York by; today, it'd be about Williamsburg hipsters worrying over their Internet videos. The climactic number of the first act, "La Vie Bohe Me," feels like painful name-dropping, as opposed to an expression of artistic freedom (it didn't play well the first time around, come to think of it).
But the strong performances serve as a reminder as to why Rent felt special to begin with; there's a raw energy to them that conveys a sense of excitement and passion against the minimalist staging. Rent is a musical whose time may have come and gone, but this production reminds us that there's a reason you've had to sit through so many high schoolers singing "five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes" at graduations. It's bohemian schmaltz all right, but it sticks with you.