BWW Review: RENT at National Theatre
For those who have been paying attention for the last 20-ish years, RENT was/is a pretty big deal. The rock opera adaptation of Puccini's La Boheme follows a group of young creatives in New York City during the AIDS crisis and was so popular during its initial run that it racked up multiple awards, including 3 Tonys and a Pulitzer. With that in mind, I believe it to be a very daunting task to perform RENT because it's easy to go through the motions and sing the songs that people know and love without really having to think about it. That being said, there were many moments where they got it right and others that might've fallen a little flat.
The ensemble as a whole had fantastic energy, but I found was occasionally misplaced. In their Life Support scenes, I saw them create very real and moving characters that really drew me in and made me interested. Alternatively, in moments where they were homeless, like in any of the "Christmas Bells" songs, it felt like more of a caricature of the homeless, same goes for when they had to be drug addicts. I found moments like these lacked sincerity and read almost angst-y. However, to their credit, their sound was off the charts. All the group numbers like "Rent", "La Vie Boheme", and "Seasons of Love" were wildly impressive due to the quality of their sound, and therefore were their best performances as a whole.
As for the individual performances, Aiyana Smash as Mimi and Shafiq Hicks as Collins were the highlights of the show for me, with both fully dynamic and committed performances. Smash's Mimi was a vibrant young woman who is struggling with disease, drugs, and love. Her energetic, acrobatic rendition of "Out Tonight" was one of the most impressive moments in the show. This only to be juxtaposed by her heartfelt, stripped-down "Without You" in the second act. In every scene she was in, she set the tone and others followed. Not to mention, her voice is a force in and of itself, equally breathy and powerful. Hicks' found a harmonious mixture of vulnerability, sweetness, and strength to his performance as Tom Collins. The character is inherently one of the most likeable in the entire show, but Hicks made him that much more personable and fortified, and by doing so made his vulnerability in the second act that much more moving. As a person who has seen the show multiple times, I would say that I have grown immune to the sadder parts of the show, but I was proved wrong at Hicks' moving rendition of the reprise of "I'll Cover You". And I didn't seem to be the only one, evidenced by the chorus of sniffles following the song.
The other principals also did a fine job. Cody Jenkins as Mark Cohen presented the typical, neurotic, at times awkward character. With that, his rendition of "Halloween" was right on, solidifying his character as someone who feels isolated and isn't one dimensional, which is something that sets apart a good Mark from a bad Mark. Coleman Cummings as Roger Davis left something to be desired. Cummings had a beautiful tenor voice and even though it lacked the gritty rock aspect of most Rogers, it was so good, I didn't seem to mind. However, he internalized to much of his performance, which left me confused on what his take on Roger was. There were shining moments, like when he was enjoying himself and jamming out with the ensemble during "La Vie Boheme" or the frustration when he blew up at his best friend Mark before leaving for the West coast. For brief moments, he would show what he thought of his character, but not often enough. Kelsee Sweigard as Maureen was more comedic than I was expecting, but I can appreciate adding an element of comedy to Maureen, as it lightened the mood at times. Not to mention, she also has a killer voice that was a real force on stage.
My main qualm with the show is since they were all such strong singers, many people in the cast relied on such to get them through the show. With some such as Aiyana Smash and Shafiq Hicks who both created such diverse and multifaceted characters all while singing beautifully, when others lacked that density to their performances, it was noticeable. With that being said, hats off to their music director, because their sound was one of the tightest I've heard from an ensemble in a while. And to give credit where credit is due, I do believe overall that RENT is a more tricky piece to understand and perform than people expect. All in all, I will say that it was an incredibly enjoyable performance, I just wish there was more detail paid to each performance by the performer.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Rent concluded its one week run at The National Theatre on November 17, 2019.
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