OKC Broadway Brings 20th Anniversary Tour of RENT to the Civic Center
Major Broadway musicals are bound to have many different incarnations over time, from early workshops to original runs to revivals and regional productions. Shows that stand the test of time, the way that Rent does, appear on the stage in touring productions, long, open-ended runs, and international productions around the world. The current tour that's travelling the country, heralded as the 20th Anniversary Tour and currently running at the Civic Center in Oklahoma City, is a mostly disappointing production that doesn't really do the show as a whole the justice it deserves.
With book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, Rent appeared on Broadway in 1996 and took the great white way by storm, winning both the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This beloved rock musical is an adaptation of the opera La Boheme, set in New York City's East Village. The story follows a group of young, struggling, aspiring artists, trying to make their way in a world of cold, harsh realities, especially drug addiction and the AIDS epidemic.
Part of the show's appeal is the wonderful cast of characters Larson created, all unique and multi-layered. Mark, an aspiring filmmaker and Roger, an budding musician, live together in a building owned by their friend and former roommate Benny, who now wants to evict them as he has bigger plans for the building and adjacent lot. Mark and Roger are joined by fellow anarchist Tom Collins and his new love interest, a drag queen named Angel, as they fight back against Benny and what he now represents. They are joined by Mark's former girlfriend Maureen, her new girlfriend, Joanne, and Mimi, a drug addict and exotic dancer who lives in their building and who falls in love with Roger.
Part of the brilliance in Larson's work is that he makes these characters so real and so relatable. He gets down deep into what makes them tick and never presents them as just a cardboard cutout or a stereotype. They are deeply human and instantly recognizable as, in a way, the same as all of us, no matter how they live their life or what they are going through. At the same time, Larson's songs are just as brilliant as his characters, if not more so. While they are all catchy and memorable, even unforgettable, they are also entirely profound, presenting themes and messages that have the audience both singing along and thinking seriously about their own lives. The lyrics and dialogue alike run the gamut from hilarious to tragic and do so without ever seeming forced, fake or contrived.
Similar high praise cannot be given to this particular production, though, which was restaged by Evan Ensign, based on the original direction by Michael Greif, with choreography by Marlies Yearby. That is largely due to the fact that this iteration of Rent is sorely lacking in real depth, beyond what is there in the lyrics and the words that Larson wrote. Yes, it's still very emotional and powerful at times, because Larson wrote it that way and made it that way. This production, though, doesn't get any deeper than that, it never finds the true heart and soul of the show and it's characters, leaving the audience with little more than people with beautiful voices singing gorgeous songs.
Yes, the cast do mostly have beautiful voices, but they fail to deliver to the audience true, believable emotions about what they are singing. Most egregious is Kaleb Wells as Roger, whose whiny, high-pitched screaming instead of singing just doesn't work most of the time. Though his voice is clearly powerful, he needs to tone it down a lot, which he does to some good effect, finally, at the show's very end. He also redeems himself somewhat when he's part of the big ensemble numbers and he blends in with the rest of the cast. Even when he's not singing, Wells plays Roger mostly as a jerk and never makes him likable or sympathetic, which is unfortunate. Many of his lines and lyrics come across as just line readings, just saying or singing words without providing the real, truthful emotion that underlies them.
That problem, speaking or singing the words on the page without providing the true human emotions that go along with them, plagues most of this cast. As Mark, Sammy Ferber is better at it than most of his cast-mates. He does manage to dig into Mark's soul and give Mark some nice emotional moments. Ferber also has one of the best voices in the ensemble and is a pleasure to listen to. He's a very consistent performer who brings his A-game to every scene or musical number and is one of the most charismatic actors in this cast.
Also very charismatic and fun to watch are Jasmine Easler as Joanne and Lyndie Moe as Maureen. Great chemistry is essential between the show's three central couples and Easler and Moe have tons of it. They are great together, both of them are very funny and have gorgeous voices, whether they are singing together or apart. Easler's duet with Ferber, "Tango Maureen," is one of the high points of the show, they play off each other wonderfully. And Moe's big solo moment when Maureen gives her protest performance of "Over the Moon" is both totally hilarious and completely nuts, which is meant in the best way possible.
Joining them as the second couple at the center of the story is Tom and Angel, who meet on the streets of New York City after Tom is mugged. They have great moments together, both hilarious and tragic, and here those moments are handled skillfully by Aaron Harrington as Tom and Aaron Alcaraz as Angel. Harrington has a lovely, deep voice that he uses to excellent effect, both alone and when it's paired with the higher tones of Alcaraz's vocals. Alcaraz takes the part of Angel, an arguably iconic and beloved role, and runs with it, nailing it for the most part. He also has excellent chemistry with Harrington and their duet "I'll Cover You" is another of the show's highlights.
The third and final couple is the aforementioned Roger and his neighbor Mimi, a young woman dealing with drug addiction who falls in love with him. Similar to Ferber's performance as Mark, Skyler Volpe is a real bright spot in this production as Mimi. With a beautiful and resonant voice, she vocally nails both of Mimi's big solo moments, "Out Tonight" and "Without You." She is also better than most at offering the role some real, believable emotion and true life. Like all of these characters, the role can be a challenging one and Volpe handles it very well.
There's also an ensemble full of other performers here who also handle their parts very well. Actually, the show's true best moments are the ensemble numbers. "La Vie Boheme" is as fun and exciting as it always has been, a perfect way to end Act One. Equally excellent is the beginning of Act Two, when they all gather at the edge of the stage and sing "Seasons of Love." Though the leads may be uneven or disappointing, the ensemble as a whole works brilliantly together and does do justice to those numbers when they are called upon to make glorious music together.
Even with its problems, there is still glorious music in this production. It's still a serviceable performance of some of the best songs ever put on a Broadway stage and will likely please both fans of the show and newcomers to the material. Additionally, it's still a show that, as a whole, resonates in the society and culture we live in today. At it's core, it's a show about love, acceptance, friendship and hope, which are all things we could use more of in today's world.
Note: Rent is not recommended for children under the age of 13, parental guidance is suggested.
Rent runs through November 12th at the Civic Center Music Hall at 201 N Walker Ave in Oklahoma City. Upcoming performances are Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 1:30pm and 7pm. Tickets are available by visiting www.okcbroadway.com, calling 405-297-2264, Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm, or visiting the Civic Center box office.