Jonathan Larsen’s Rent is a puzzle to me. When it took Broadway by storm in 1996, with critics falling all over themselves to praise it to the heavens, I sought out the score, gave it a listen, and said “Eh.” Now, 17 years later, I thought it was time to give the show another shot. Unfortunately, it still failed to move me.
Loosely based on Puccini’s La Boheme, it’s the story of a group of East Village bohemians who daily struggle with poverty, uncomfortable living conditions, drugs and the specter of AIDS. Mark (Reagan Osborne) is an aspiring filmmaker who is constantly documenting the lives of his friends and associates. His roommate, Roger (Juan Lozano), is an HIV-positive ex-junkie musician. Another former roommate, Tom Collins (Dedrick Bonner) is a professor who’s come out and come back to the Village. When he is mugged in the alley near Roger and Mark’s apartment, he is helped by Angel (Jonathon Grant), a tough drag queen who quickly captures his heart.
Meanwhile, as Roger is still mourning the loss of his girlfriend to suicide, he is visited by Mimi (Lauren-Joy Goss), a heroin-addicted stripper whose flirtatious ways signal the beginning of a romantic relationship. Mark is still chafing over the loss of his love interest, Maureen (Alli Miller) – to another woman, Joanne (Kate Bowman) – but agrees to help them stage a public protest against yet another former roommate, Benny (Brian Keith Gamble), who has become their coldhearted landlord.
This plot steamrolls along with song after song and much elaborate choreography, as if constant movement would somehow mask the thin story and vacuous score. Larsen himself said in an interview given to the New York Times just before he died that he had written the “Hair of the ’90s.” Well, he may have used the Hair formula, but while the former perfectly captured the love generation – and is packed with memorable numbers – Rent just doesn’t have the depth or the music. Even after all these years, “Seasons of Love” is about the only song that people remember.
That being said (and putting prejudices aside), the 2Cents Theatre production now playing at the Hudson Mainstage is an ambitious and professional mounting of the show. Efficiently helmed by Kristen Boulé, it makes good use of its small stage with a multileveled scaffolding set by Anderson William lit by Donny Jackson. Cast member Miller staged the busy choreography, and Bonner provided vocal coaching. All these elements are fine, and it’s always nice to have a live band, in this case under the direction of Morgan Fitch. The cast is also uniformly good, with some singing better than others and the standouts being Lozano and Grant. If you’re a fan of the show, this is an excellent way to see it.
Rent plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. through June 30th at the Hudson Theatre Mainstage, 6359 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Tickets cash be obtained online or by calling (323) 960-4410.