I wondered if Rent, the hit musical from the AIDS-crisis era by the late Jonathan Larson, would seem dated in 2015. Most Americans with the HIV virus are on a regimen of drugs that keep AIDS at bay, while New York City has become the safest large city in America, overrun with luxury condos, and sorely lacking in gritty bohemian neighborhoods like the late-20th-century East Village setting of the show.
But as I learned from the new production by the Harbor Lights Theater Company on Staten Island, Rent has become a perfectly valid period piece, much like Guys and Dolls or Oklahoma!. More important, its score remains fresh, inventive, and exciting.
The show’s narrative problems remain. Too episodic, its scattered storylines can be confusing to follow, especially given Larson’s fast, clever lyrics and irregular song structures. But Harbor Lights’ sturdy production at the Music Hall at Snug Harbor on Staten Island boasts a talented cast with some superb singers, dancers, and triple threats, along with a fabulous set, glorious costumes, and a tight band.
It lacks two things: inspired direction and well-balanced sound.
While the band won’t blow away the grey-haired set with excessive volume, it does often overpower individual voices that aren’t amplified enough, so that the rapid-fire lyrics get lost. Without those words the story, such as it is, gets lost too.
Moreover the direction is flat and stolid compared to the cast’s bubbling energy, and the choreography doesn’t measure up to the power of the score.
Nonetheless numerous moments and performances shine. Zuri Washington is a blowtorch of a Maureen. Michael J. Mainwaring is marvelously moving, in both senses of the word, as Angel. Emily Jeanne Phillips dances up a storm as Mimi, and Madeline Fansler and Monté J. Howell are in superb voice as Joanne and Tom respectively.
Numbers like “One Song Glory,” “Today 4 U,” “Tango: Maureen,” “Out Tonight,” and the beautiful “Another Day” stand out as inspiring material strongly and colorfully performed. The grand duets “I’ll Cover You” and “Take Me or Leave Me” shine. And as the little community of Act I seems to be falling apart in Act II, “Without You” touches deeply.
The ensemble numbers and scenes, however, too often suffer from lackluster staging even when the company asserts the music itself with confidence. For the most part, I didn’t feel these people’s speeded-up sense of their lives, lives they are supposed to be certain will end much too soon. The awareness of a fast-approaching death is one of the show’s driving narrative forces, but for very long stretches I didn’t pick it up. Too often, instead, I felt confused about what was going on.
Nonetheless I’m glad I saw this production with its strong cast, brilliant set, and exciting and still fresh-sounding score. More so than some other hit musicals that celebrated a counterculture, Rent has retained its life force and relevance, and these come through even in a flawed production. There will always be artsy desperadoes like these somewhere in the world. There will also always, it seems, be another plague, somewhere. And on the strength of this production I feel Larson’s work will be with us for a good long time too.
Rent is at the Music Hall at Sailor’s Snug Harbor, Staten Island, through October 4. For information and tickets visit the Harbor Lights website or call 866-811-4111.