Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent, the La Boheme inspired look at artists in an AIDS-plagued East Village, returns to New York tonight in an Off-Broadway revival at the New World Stages. The production, while not a radical re-imagining by original director Michael Greif, features new design elements (including an evocatively cramped, jungle gym of a set), a necessarily more intimate feeling and a fresh cast of “unknowns” (though there are some heavyweight resumes in the bunch).
That seems only right because, beyond Larsen’s still kicky, hooky score and his deeply-felt empathy, the show for me was always about those young performers, grabbing hold of their big chance with a brashness that was hard to replicate when others stepped into their thrifts store duds. They were idiosyncratic performers encouraged to break free of Broadway cookie cutter types: nerd-chic audience surrogate Anthony Rapp, wailing sensitive frontman Adam Pascal, raspy survivor Daphne Rubin-Vega, squeaky/soulful sexpot Idina Menzel. When you saw that original cast, as I was lucky enough to see most of (yeah, get me my walker), you felt you were watching a tribe, lost boys (and girls) joyfully celebrating each other and their differences. Plus, Adam Pascal looked good in tight pants.
So, how does the new cast compare? It’s not really a fair question (nor do I want to jump the gun with a full review before the official opening), but I will say that there are flashes of personality that reminded me of the original’s “star-in-the-making” quality — while also making me forget that someone else ever played the part. Who might be that next Rent discovery? Whip-smart and big-voiced pro Annaleigh Ashford as Maureen deftly upends expectations (underplaying “Over the Moon” then sashaying away with huge laughs elsewhere) and blows the roof off “Take Me, Or Leave Me” (with equal vocal firepower from Corbin Reid). Where Ashford is a controlled vet (Wicked, Hair), Arianda Fernandez tears into “Out Tonight” with an eager recklessness that seems right (and a little scary) for the barely-adult, addict Mimi. Also, keep an eye out for Michael Wartella, who uses his lovely voice and commitment to detail to make rounded people out of several smaller characters (I actually wanted to follow a whole play about his waiter!)
And, in a way, isn’t that the underlying point of Rent? Grab hold of the moment, however fleeting, and make the most of it.
So, in the spirit Rent now and then, let’s watch video of one original cast member still reeling from his new stardom and one new cast member whom I think is about to follow on that path.