Revolutionary Rent brings la vie boheme from Broadway to Chicago

By Matt Zakosek

The history of Rent is one of Broadway’s strangest stories. Its creator, Jonathan Larson, died the morning of Rent’s final dress rehearsal, 10 days shy of his 36th birthday—not of HIV-related complications, as many believe, but of an aortic aneurysm. For a few years after its 1996 debut, Rent was unimpeachably cool. Theater critics raved, conservative politicians blanched, and hordes of alterna-teens lined up in front of the Nederlander to score bargain-buy tickets moments before the show.

Then—horror of horrors—the zeitgeist changed drastically. RENT no longer garnered the kind of respect that a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize–winning masterpiece deserves. My musical-geek friends were much more likely to rant about Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Rent suddenly seemed like a relic of the Clinton era, as outdated as the characters’ battle cry of “Actual reality! Act up! Fight AIDS!” (I mean, come on—does anyone worry about virtual reality anymore?)

All of this is a deep shame, because I stand by my original analysis. Rent is as fresh, invigorating, and life-affirming as it was back in the mid-’90s (even if some cynical bastards aren’t willing to admit it). The songs are catchy as hell, and the performance on Tuesday, April 27 at the Shubert Theater—part of the Broadway in Chicago series—was so powerful that it moved two of my friends and me to tears.

The plot of Rent is a simple one: an update of Puccini’s La Bohème, refashioning Mimi’s terminal disease as AIDS and substituting Mark and Roger for Marcello and Rodolfo. The story is sandwiched between two Christmas Eves and features a trio of couples—one gay, one lesbian, one straight—but this is a poor synopsis, because it makes Rent sound gimmicky. All you need to know about Rent is that it is a story about life. The characters even dine at a place called the Life Café, and the song “La Vie Bohème”—arguably the centerpiece of the show—is not only an allusion to the opera that Rent adapts but an ode to the characters’ bohemian lifestyle as well.

Having joyously memorized the recording of the original Broadway cast—some mornings, I wouldn’t even get out of bed until I had listened to the entire double CD—the highest praise I can give to the cast currently performing at the Schubert is that they didn’t make me wish I was back in 1996. These performers actually did bring new interpretations to their roles, and for the most part, they were at least equal to the actors hand-picked by Jonathan Larson for the original show. The one exception was Damien DeShaun Smith, whose Angel missed the compassion at the heart of the character and instead focused on his (her?) campier, over-the-top aspects.

You can’t have a good Rent without an excellent Roger and Mimi. Their romance serves as the crux of the plot—more so than Maureen and Joanne’s or Collins and Angel’s —and they share some of the most moving numbers in the show: “Another Day,” “I Should Tell You,” and the haunting “Your Eyes,” just to name a few. Fortunately, Constantine Maroulis does not disappoint as a grungy, contemplative Mark, and Jaime Lee Kirchner delights as a vivacious Mimi—that is, after we forget her frustratingly weak entrance on “Light My Candle.”

Other stand-outs include Brian Gligor as moral barometer Mark Cohen—he does everything well, from singing to dancing to pretending to masturbate against a table—and Leslie Diamond as the romantically-challenged Maureen. Diamond should especially be commended for her rendition of “Over the Moon.” So many actresses get it wrong, interpreting the piece as bad performance art—which, of course, it is—while ignoring the good intentions that lie underneath. This “Over the Moon” was so thrilling that it made me want to moo all the harder. No, that’s not a typo: at one point during the performance, Maureen asks you to moo. (Hey, don’t feel silly—it’s your duty as an audience member. And President Clinton mooed when he saw it.)

The orchestra was stirring and technical aspects were all top-notch, an impressive feat for an opening night performance. The seats weren’t quite filled, but fortunately, there didn’t appear to be any season ticket-holders who looked shocked to be watching a play about drag queens and homosexuals. The cast seemed in good spirits, chatting with audience members after the show and politely refusing my friends’ repeated requests to autograph their breasts.

In short: Rent may not be as red-hot as it once was, but that’s due—I believe—to an increasing cultural cynicism and a failure to engage in truly unsettling issues. It’s high time for a Rent revival, and you can play your part by catching the excellent cast currently hoofing it up on Broadway.