Jonathan Larson’s ambitious, if not entirely unproblematic Rent closes out the 5th Avenue Theatre’s season on a triumphant note, with an able and committed young cast breathing new life into the rock opera. Rent, pushing two decades old these days, can seem a little quaint in its unabashed earnestness, but there’s no denying the emotional power embedded in numbers like “Another Day” and “Without You.” I’ll probably never be completely sold on the score’s frequent stylistic jackknifing or Larson’s well intentioned but often toothless social commentary (I’m looking at you, “What You Own”), but in the 5th’s hands, Rent is a consistently engaging production.
Set in New York’s bohemian Alphabet City in an era when the scourge of AIDS had just begun to rear its ugly head, Rent focuses on a group of squatters in an abandoned loft and the tight-knit community of artists and outcasts they form together. Roger Davis (Aaron C. Finley) is an erstwhile musician who’s given up on his dream and just about everything else when he meets a dancer named Mimi (Naomi Morgan), whose heroin addiction looms large. Anarchist and intellectual Tom Collins (Brandon O’Neill) falls for magnetic drag queen Angel Dumont Schunard (Jerick Hoffer). On-again, off-again Maureen and Joanne (Ryah Nixon, Andi Alhadeff) struggle to move past Maureen’s wandering eye and Joanne’s uptightness. Mark Cohen (Daniel Berryman) is an aspiring filmmaker and the show’s narrator who documents a year in the life of his friends.
Hoffer is simply stunning as Angel, and just because that’s the character that tends to be the show’s centerpiece doesn’t mean getting there is a foregone conclusion. Hoffer’s effortless vocal range and skill at evoking both sass (“Today 4 U”) and sentiment (“I’ll Cover You”) is extraordinary. O’Neill is a bit of an unconventional casting choice as counterpart Collins, but he owns the role completely, culminating in an enormously moving reprise of “I’ll Cover You” near the show’s end. Similarly, the chemistry between Nixon and Alhadeff is palpable, and their brassy, confrontational “Take Me or Leave Me” sees the sparks fly.
Director Bill Berry, working with a staging that gives the ensemble a bit more stage presence, keeps the action focused while allowing for multiple levels of diegesis to take place on the margins. It’s never chaotic, but it’s constantly giving audience eyes the opportunity to roam. Martin Christoffel’s scenic design consists primarily of functional scaffolding, but setting it beneath a massive highway overpass creates the feeling of an imposing urban prison.
Thursday’s opening night performance wasn’t without some performance and technical jitters including a massively blown note on a “Seasons of Love” solo and some spotlight operating that was several steps behind, but with this impressive cast, it’s a safe bet that Rent fanatics will be slotting this production somewhere near the top of their favorites list.
Rent is on stage at the 5th Avenue Theatre through Aug. 19. Tickets are available for purchase at the 5th’s website.