Rent

The rebellious attitude of Rock ‘n Roll seldom mixes well with the middle class sensibilities of Broadway. I’m talking of course about the Rock Opera. Make no mistake! A lot of money has been made from the combination: Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, and others, but there have been very few artistic triumphs.

Rent was probably one of them. Based on Puccinis LaBoheme and transposed to 1980’s New York, (AIDS is the new tuberculosis), the show used rock’s edgy rhythms to compliment the quirky and Bohemian characters of the story. It is a true rock opera, having little dialog and moving the plot forward during the songs. And those songs really rock.

Chris Columbus, who I can only assume used some the his accumulated clout from the success of the Harry Potter movies to get this made, uses most of the original Broadway cast. That’s a brave choice in today’s Hollywood, where star power is seen as vital to driving that all important first weekend. The only exception is Rosario Dawson who plays Mimi, the HIV positive, heroin addicted exotic dancer. She does pretty well with the singing, even though you can tell she’s not in the same class as the others.

I like the use of the original cast. There are people in this world who can sing, dance, and act. If you’re making a musical, why not use them? I also like that the singing is part of this world. They don’t make the songs a dream sequence like in Chicago, or make any concessions to modern sensibilities. This is a world where people break out into song right in the middle of the street, a subway car, or a bistro, and if there are other people around, they watch and enjoy the performance. It is New York after all. Rent is very old fashioned in that respect.

This is a very straight forward treatment of a story with a very twisted theme. These are characters who have rejected all of society’s shackles: artistic, moral and financial. Of course they pay a price for this lifestyle, but they do so happily. It might be tempting for some directors to dabble with experimental techniques, but not this one. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a less avant garde director than Chris Columbus, which makes him perfect for Rent. Jump cuts, weird camera angles, playing with cause and effect, would have obscured the theme, not complemented it. This was probably Jonathan Larson’s (who wrote the original musical) thinking. It’s actually a very traditional show.

Only a few negatives. The pace drags toward the end. At times the artiness of the characters can seem a little self righteous, as well as all the AIDS activism.

But the performances are fine. I liked Anthony Rapp as Mark, a nerdish filmmaker who serves as our anchor in the strange world of the avant garde. Adam Pascal plays Roger with convincing gloom. Jesse L. Martin gives us a compassionate take on Collins, the vulnerable intelligent philosophy teacher. Wilson Jermaine Heredia steals all his scenes as Angel, the irrepressible but doomed transvestite. Idina Menzel is terrific as Maureen, the manipulative performance artist, and Tracie Toms has the voice of an angel as Joanne, Maureen’s uptight lawyer lover.

The best thing is the music. It’s not quite Rock ‘n Roll, but it combines some of that energy with the energy of musical theater and who knows, maybe even opera, to come up with something unique and exciting.

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