BWW Review: The Message of RENT Holds Strong Despite Many Problems
RENT on FOX, the live musical event, began its broadcast with the words "previously recorded" on the screen. Brennin Hunt, who plays Roger Davis in the show, broke his foot during dress rehearsal. Which led to FOX's decision that they would broadcast the taped dress rehearsal performance, instead of going live. Unfortunately, this resulted in a show that did not deliver its full potential. However, there were many moments that shined through.
I spent the whole show wondering what each performance would be like if the cast and crew knew this would end up being what was shown to millions, instead of just a live audience of a few hundred. It was obvious that for many of the songs, the cast were saving their voice for the live show, which led to lackluster numbers. The first act felt disjointed. Many of the songs weren't quite there, and the camera work made it hard to follow at times. In "Another Day," for example, the camera never explains to the audience the moment that the rest of the cast joins in to sing, which loses song's the powerful effect. You could see the potential that songs like "Today For You" had, with Valentina's captivating performance as Angel overshadowed by the loud audience.
The show went live for the finale, and you could immediately feel the difference in energy and performance value from the cast, which was just another reminder of what the show could've been if it had gone on as planned. It left me to wonder why there were no understudies cast in case of injury or illness, since that is the norm in the theatre world. I except that RENT will serve as an example to future live broadcasts to plan for this situation. But, even with all of the drama surrounding the show, the moment the curtain fell and the original cast of RENT began to sing "Seasons of Love" I broke out into tears.
The return of the original cast was not the only standout moment, however. Vanessa Hudgens' Maureen Johnson was electric and full of powerful vocals. Her duet with Kiersey Clemons' Joanne during "Take Me or Leave Me" was one of the first moments the show felt at its full potential. Clemons' was also a standout to me, her performance was grounded and strong throughout the entire show. The choreography of "Contact" was beautiful and haunting, and it lead into the best moment of the show, Brandon Victor Dixon's rendition of "I'll Cover You (Reprise)" as Collins. Dixon's incredible voice made you feel the devastation Collins has for the loss of his love, Angel, and when he sings "my heart has expired" I felt his pain so deeply. The shows most impactful moments, not surprisingly, came from the songs that centered around AIDS and the illness and pain that comes with it. "Life Support" gave me chills in the beginning of the show, and using the audience in "Will I?" gave the number so much depth. Act Two opened with a moving performance of "Seasons of Love" from the company, with Keala Settle commanded the stage with her incredible range and powerful vocals-one of the best moments of the entire show.
When it was first announced that RENT would be FOX's next live musical, I was skeptical, given the show's message and many of its lyrics. The decisions the network made for things to keep, change, or cut, in last night's production confused me. "La Vie Boheme" lost much of its luster when lyrics were changed seemingly for no reason. Why couldn't Angel model the latest fall fashions from Paris? Also, they decided to keep words like "masturbation" or "faggots, lezzies, dykes" but cut "dildo"? And later on, during Angel's funeral, when Mark is eulogizing, they cut the phrase "drag queen" and instead referred to Angel as "someone like her." I found it ironic that they'd cut the phrase drag queen out of a show where one of the main characters IS a drag queen, played by an actress who is also a drag queen herself! Despite these strange cuts, it was incredible to see RENT on broadcast television, showcasing the queer experience without shame, as it should be.
One thing that did shine through, regardless of it being dress rehearsal, was the set design. Jason Sherwood, the show's production designer, did an incredible job embodying the essence of RENT. The set had incredible dimension, the use of height and with the scaffoldings added depth to the numbers, and the way the set weaved in and out of the audience allowed the show to feel truly immersive. The set felt grand, while also not feeling grand at all. Sherwood used the space to full effect while still maintaining the bohemian feel of the show. The set felt like a character itself, giving so much to the production and allowing the audience see the show from new vantage points.
Last night was not what anyone expected. Watching a taped dress rehearsal instead of the finished live show, was full of "what ifs." It was difficult to truly review a show that was never meant to air, since every misstep could've potentially been gone during the true live performance. Despite everything, the show was still able to tap into audiences' emotions and deliver Jonathan Larson's message to households nationwide, and that is something to be celebrated.
Photo Credit: Ray Mickshaw/FOX