Is it possible that "Rent", Jonathan Larson's groundbreaking hit from 1996 has now become so dated that it no longer has The Edge it once had? Or is it that the current production from the 5th Avenue Theatre is so desperately trying to be edgy that it shows its weakness? That is the question before us. But whatever you feel about the show itself, the current production at the 5th takes so many missteps that it's hard to see the show as anything but an adorable relic.
Set in the gritty Alphabet City area of New York at the end of the millennium, the story (based on Puccini's "La Boheme") follows several bohemian artists as they try to find love and success even as their home is being gentrified to make way for more corporate ideals. Mark and Roger (Daniel Berryman and Aaron C. Finley) live in a dilapidated old building now owned by their former roommate Benny (Logan Benedict). But suddenly Benny wants the back rent from the past year and the aspiring filmmaker Mark and musician Roger have no money. Meanwhile their friend Collins (Brandon O'Neill) has come back into town only to be mugged on his way up to Mark and Roger's apartment and is rescued by the fabulous drag queen Angel (Jerrick Hoffer). Add to the mix their drugged up exotic dancer neighbor Mimi (Nomi Morgan). That night they all head out to catch Mark's ex-girlfriend Maureen (Ryah Nixon), with the help of her new girlfriend Joanne (Andi Alhadeff), perform her protest of Benny's demolition of the lot.
This incredible rock opera was the darling of Broadway back in 1996 as it dared to talk about homosexuality, drag queens, drug abuse, corporate greed, selling out and AIDS as no other show had. But now you can see all those topics on ABC Family shows and no one even blinks. But hey, it's still an incredible show with beloved and iconic songs and a heartbreaking story … when it's done well. And there's the problem.
The voices in the show are sublime. For the most part they belt out those songs to rival the best productions. Unfortunately there are so many people miscast in the show that it's hard to get past that in order to enjoy them. And no, I'm not talking about the fact that there is a shocking lack of African Americans in roles typically played by them. I'm trying to look past that. Finley has an amazing voice but it's wrong for the gritty rocker he's attempting to portray. And the character he's portraying seems to have two speeds, intense and angry. Morgan also has a killer voice but also matches Finley's melodramatic hand wringing note for note. Berryman is likable as Mark but lacked any kind of conflict about the situations surrounding him. Alhadeff comes across as forced as the uptight Joanne as does Benedict as the sell out Benny. Both feel like caricatures of people and are ultimately forgettable. And O'Neill just feels out of place trying to play a 20 something activist.
The most real and believable moments come from the remaining two principals as well as some brief yet stunning moments from the ensemble. Nixon inhabits the soul of the kitten-with-a-whip Maureen as she struts around the stage and is a joy to watch. Hoffer lends a beautiful air of fabulous sadness to his portrayal of Angel and his turn in the number "Contact" was one of the few emotionally affecting moments of the night. And ensemble members Eric Ankrim, Antonia Darlene and Heath Saunders nailed their all too brief solo moments in the show. So much so that I wished they were portraying some of the leads.
Director Bill Berry has tried to reinvent a show that needs no reinvention. It simply needs to have its story told with honesty, which was lacking in this production. Add into that reinvention some confusing choreography from Daniel Cruz and this production of "Rent" comes across as trying to shove a square peg in a round hole. Really the only saving grace of the evening as a whole was some beautiful voices singing some iconic and favorite songs. But for that I could have stayed home and listened to the CD.
"Rent" performs at the 5th Avenue Theatre through August 19th. For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at www.5thavenue.org.