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Review Roundup: RENT Off-Broadway

The new, off-Broadway production of RENT opened Thursday, August 11 at New World Stages. The resurrection of the cult classic, written by Jonathan Larson, is being directed by Michael Greif, who directed the show's original off-Broadway and Broadway productions. The creative team includes choreographer Larry Keigwin, music supervisor Tim Weil, set designer Mark Wendland, costume designer Angela Wendt, lighting designer Kevin Adams, sound designer Brian Ronan, and projection designer by Peter Nigrini

The cast of Rent is Annaleigh Ashford (Maureen Johnson), Margot Bingham (Alexi Darling, Roger's Mom, and others), Adam Chanler-Berat (Mark Cohen), Nicholas Christopher (Tom Collins), Arianda Fernandez (Mimi Marquez), Marcus Paul James (Mr. Jefferson, Paul, and others), Tamika Sonuja Lawrence (Mrs. Jefferson, woman with bags), Corbin Reid (Joanne Jefferson), Michael Rodriguez (Angel Schunard), Matt Shingledecker (Roger Davis), Ephraim Sykes (Benjamin Coffin III), Ben Thompson (Christmas caroler, Mr. Grey, The Man, and others), Michael Wartella (Steve, Gordon, Waiter, and others), and Morgan Weed (Mark's Mom and others). Also in the company is Sean Michael Murray, Xavier Cano, and Genny Padilla.

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: Despite the fact that Michael Greif, the show's first director, has restaged it, this "Rent" is not a remounting but a true revival, featuring an all-new cast and freshly designed sets by Mark Wendland, whose metal scaffolding echoes the fire-escape motif of Oliver Smith's now-legendary décor for "West Side Story." At the same time, no attempt has been made to update the show, and its overall effect is essentially the same. All that's changed is the people in the audience: They're still young, but precisely because they're so youthful, Mr. Larson's affectionate portrait of bohemian New York in the early '90s clearly comes across to them not as an exercise in nostalgia for the good old bad old days but as a theme-park re-creation of a world they never knew. They might as well be watching "Woodstock"-or "West Side Story," for that matter. 

Elisabeth Vincentelli, NY Post: Mark Wendland's two-tiered set constantly brims with people moving and singing. But there's no sense of kinetic energy, just strenuous bustle. Meanwhile the actors tackle the characters and Larson's now-iconic score with varying success. Rodriguez stands out as a badass Angel, while Reid and Christopher are in fine, warm voices. The biggest surprise is Ashford's bubbly and decidedly comic Maureen - the opposite of Idina Menzel's predatory one. It feels counterintuitive at times, but at least Ashford gives us something new to chew on.

Joe Dziemianowicz, NY Daily News: Greif's revised staging of the anthemic group number "La Vie Boheme" and the depiction of the doomed Angel's fate don't pack the emotional wallop of the original. If there's a saving grace, "Rent" has been fashioned for new audiences. They won't know what they're missing.

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: There were moments when the swirling, heart-plucking tunefulness and witty layering of Larson's score struck me anew. But without characters who are credibly grounded by the actors portraying them, the show feels slicker and more contrived than it did. (When Roger and Mark have their climactic showdown, with mutual accusations filling the air, nothing they say about each other seems justified by what we've seen onstage.)

Phillip Boroff, Bloomberg: Matt Shingledecker is well cast as Roger, the HIV-infected songwriter who sings of the pretty boy front man wasting opportunity in "One Song Glory." Annaleigh Ashford plays Maureen, the feisty bisexual performance artist, more for laughs than did Idina Menzel. (Menzel is among the original cast members in the 2005 movie.) Adam Chanler-Berat is a low-key Mark, the documentarian narrator, who bears a slight resemblance to Larson himself. Nicholas Christopher as Tom Collins inspires awe and empathy as a joyful philosophy professor in love with a drag queen.

Steve Suskin, Variety: It seems like a mere 525,600 minutes since "Rent" -- Jonathan Larson's ground-breaking, Tony-and-Pulitzer-winning study of East Village Bohemians -- blew out its last candle over at Broadway's Nederlander Theater. It's already back, and the news is all to the good. "Rent" is not so provocative as it was back in 1996, but even so, the tuner is plenty effective in its new Off Broadway guise.

Michael Musto, The Village Voice: The night's highlights include the affecting "I'll Cover You" by MJ Rodriguez and Nicholas Christopher (who powerfully reprises it with the ensemble), "Out Tonight," belted by the hedonistic Mimi, Arianda Fernandez, hanging from the rafters, and the looney performance piece "Over The Moon," done to comic perfection by the Cameron Diaz-like Annaleigh Ashford. The production's net impact, like the theater, is smaller--not as wrenching or tough as Rent was and could be. But it still has the power to provoke and move. Even in this slightly lower-octane version, Rent is worth the money--and it was great to once again hear the references to the Clit Club, the Pyramid, and, yes, the Voice.

Jennifer Farrar, Associated Press: Greif has fully utilized the small theater, creating a dynamic flow of quick scene changes on Mark Wendland's intimate set. Vertical and multi-tiered, it's a clever maze of fire escapes, ladders and window gates, rising against a backdrop of urban projections by Peter Nigrini. With lighting by Kevin Adams and Brian Ronan's sound design, the production elements nicely establish quicksilver mood and location changes.

Robert Feldberg, NorthJersey.com: There are some differences in this off-Broadway production, for both good and ill, but the modern-day retelling of the opera "La Boheme," with a community of poor, young East Village artists linked in love and death, is essentially the "Rent" we all know.

Michael Sommers, NJ Newsroom: One positive exception to the waxworks impression is Annaleigh Ashford, whose blonde looks and flirtatious ways make for quite a different Maureen than the ferocious soul forged by the brunette Idina Menzel. Instead of Menzel's fiery portrayal, Ashford's version registers more as a none-too-talented poseur than as a seriously-minded performance artist. "Over the Moon" is performed for laughs here.

Roma Torre, NY 1: It is indeed heartening to see that "Rent" is still cultivating new generations of fans. Yes, the furniture has been rearranged, but the play is comfortably back home.

 

Matt Windman, AM New York: Adam Chanler-Beret, for instance, portrays Mark in a giddy, upbeat vein that is completely different from Anthony Rapp's tense jumpiness. Similarly, Annaleigh Ashford chooses to play up Maureen's ditzy nature and pampered personality.

Matt Shingledecker makes a full dramatic progression as guitarist Roger, starting out downbeat and depressed and growing into violent emotion thanks to Mimi, played with both sweetness and sexiness by Arianda Fernandez.


 

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