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REVIEW: Lackluster Rent Crashes at the Orpheum (Hennepin Theatre Trust)

The cast of the National Tour of Rent, now playing at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

After 24 years, there’s not exactly a lot new to say about Rent. This award-winning musical was written by Jonathan Larson as a paean to a rapidly vanishing part of New York City’s history, in which artists brought vibrancy to urban areas blighted by crime, recession, and worse. After premiering Off-Broadway in 1996 and moving to Broadway, it ran for 22 fruitful years. By the time it closed, the East Village that Larson captured had long since faded into memory as gentrification swept through the neighborhood. Like the idea of affordable rent in NYC, some parts of the show have not weathered so well.

Perhaps sensing that the show was getting long in the tooth, Rent‘s producers revamped the production in time for its 20th Anniversary Tour. That tour roared through Minneapolis in 2017 with a pulsing edge of fervor and verve. It’s now two years later, however, and Rent is still on the road. This time, the tour comes back after a wholesale cast refresh and with a lot of different ideas about how to approach the score. Different does not necessarily mean better, however, and the production as a whole seems to have lost its soul.

Javon King as Angel, in an exuberant, standout performance in the Rent tour. (Joshua Tavares plays Angel in the current cast.) Photo by Carol Rosegg.

While taking in Rent in the theatre, it’s conspicuous how rarely the singers and onstage instrumentalists come together for what should be crucial moments of musical alignment. One gets the sense that the current performers do not authentically understand or engage with the material (or, at least, convince audiences that they do). There’s far more singing at than singing to going on, and the result is disengaging, to say the least. The intricate timing of Jonathan Larson’s celebrated score is largely absent in the interpretation, and what should be power anthems like “La Vie Bohème” and “Living in America” are, in a word, limp.

Not that opening night’s audience seemed to mind overly much, applauding beloved characters’ entrances and cheering the first snippets of favorite songs. By and large, however, the performances didn’t have anyplace to build; you have “loud”, “more loud”, and “even louder” to choose from. On Wednesday, the lyrics were an incoherent mess, lost in a muddy sound mix; good luck following the plot if you don’t know the show. Worse, what should have been raw vulnerability and characters making bad (but interesting) choices from a place of fear came across as a series of shouting matches between people with poor communication skills. Plus, it’s hard to celebrate songs like “Take Me As I Am” when the characters are all celebrating themselves instead of demanding and fighting to be celebrated.

Logan Marks and Lencia Kebede in the “Tango Maureen”, one of the most engaging elements in the present show (played by Cody Jenkins and Samantha Mbolekwa in the current incarnation of the tour). Photo by Carol Rosegg.

There will always be room for Rent in the musical theatre canon. This incarnation of the Rent tour, however, is a train wreck.

Rent plays through August 18 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine