BWW Review: 20th Anniversary of RENT at the Paramount Solid but No Tears
"Rent" is certainly one of those shows where you either love it or you hate it. I'm firmly in the first camp. I was right there in the fervor when it first came out in 1996 and was the "it" show the same way a current show about a founding father is today. And when that first tour came around I made sure I was right there and I bawled my way through it. Since then I've seen numerous productions over the years. Some really good that brought around those same emotions and some that felt very MEH. The current production at the Paramount Theatre did not make it all the way to the MEH camp but it certainly had a few issues and brought no tears to my eyes.
The show captured so many hot button topics for it's era, homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, drug addiction, art and the bohemian lifestyle just to name a few. You've got Roger, a struggling musician, and Mark, a struggling filmmaker, ((Kaleb Wells and Danny Harris Kornfeld) who live in a run down studio owned by their former roommate Benny (Christian Thompson). Benny's decided they can no longer live there rent free as he wants to tear down the building to put up condos and a high tech artist studio. Also living in the building is Mimi (Skyler Volpe), and exotic dancer with a drug habit. She and Roger develop a tumultuous romance due to the fact that Roger is no longer using drugs but both have HIV. Also in the mix is Collins (Bryson Bruce), an anarchist with a penchant for hacking who's back in town and starts something with Angel (Tim Ehrlich), a drag queen street performer, both of whom also have HIV. And finally there's Maureen (Katie LaMark), a performance artist who used to date Mark but dumped him to start seeing Joanne (Jasmine Easler), a high-poweRed Lawyer. Couples connect and break up, art is made and then compromised, and illnesses abate and then rage out of control. And if it all sounds vaguely familiar, well it should, as it's a modern day retelling of "La Boheme".
The show on the whole feels just a touch "not ready for Primetime". The young cast, according to their bios, are all fresh out of school and many are having their touring debuts. In fact one of the leads even commented that this was his first foray into musical theater. Because of this I saw a group of talented individuals who may not be ready to carry a national tour. The voices are strong but begin to lose some power and cohesion as the show wears on. And there's a bit too much "surface acting" or "Shmacting" (as I call it) happening at times making some of the moments feel overblown and preventing the people in the scene from actually listening to each other and connecting.
Having said that, I want to emphasize that the show is not bad. Sure there are those problems sometimes but there are also moments of soaring voices and some really interesting character choices making the parts their own and not carbon copies of the iconic originals. Ehrlich is probably the strongest in the role of Angel with tons of character and attitude and a great voice although they did cheap out on the pickle tub drumming which I severely noticed. LaMark and Easler are each powerhouses in their own right with incredible voices but didn't always connect with each other making "Take Me or Leave Me" not as much of a war as it can be. Wells, Kornfeld and Volpe each have strong voices and look the parts but fell victim to the "Shmacting" at times. And Bruce has some killer pipes but lacked some of the stage presence needed for the role of Collins.
It's a solid-ish show and if you've never seen it live you can certainly do worse. But if you have seen it and have that special memory of another production then this one might not be the greatest as it just didn't feel as professional or experienced as it could have been, especially for a national tour at the Paramount and certainly not to honor the show's anniversary. And so, with my three letter rating system I give "Rent" at the paramount a borderline YAY-/MEH+. It's all there for the most part but just lacks that extra something that comes from experience.
"Rent" performs at the Paramount Theatre through February 26th. For tickets or information visit Seattle Theatre Group online at www.stgpresents.org.