It's hard to believe that the time has come where Rent has been released from its New York grips and lives exposed to the public through the work of smaller producing companies. For years it was the great untouchable piece that went on speaking the word of an entire generation and bringing to life a new era of musical theatre. Despite the time, and no matter the size of the production, its popularity seems to remain, for the most part, unscathed. At least that would be the impression you might get from Royal Underground Theatre Company's version at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood.
The theatre was packed with an overwhelmingly enthusiastic audience that remained captivated from start to finish, humming along, laughing aloud and sharing in the despairs of the characters' experiences. It was, for the most part, a solid production of a cultish show that made a lot out of its more modest creation. As a piece of original art, however, the production offered little new or creative insight that would give this mounting any sort of uniqueness.
Operating in a space that lends itself well to the bohemian desperations of the play, The Hudson Theatre provided a wonderful environment for the production. The set, by Adrienne Frasier, was everything you would expect from the ideas or images you have in your mind of any other production of Rent. Bare bones structures suggested certain areas of the East Village with practically no specificity. Street signs, a ladder, Christmas lights and random "artsy" paraphernalia littered the space and a very out of place California license place seemed to stick out in every scene.
The costumes followed suite, often times replicating the original Broadway costumes. Even the poster for the production borrowed from the original artwork and the actors seemed to look and even sound like the original actors, with few exceptions. These factors are what make the casting of Roger as a shorter Asian man jarringly out of place. I take a moment to interject the fact that I fully support color-blind, multi-ethnic, shake-up-the-box casting in any circumstance that allows it. I would have, in fact, loved to see this production take some more risks in other casting decisions. But when the only character to stray from the casting stereotypes of the original production happens to also be the brother of the director and co-founder of the production company, it seems a little questionable.
As an ensemble, the cast was undeniably enthusiastic and passionate about the production, and it was apparent in the energy of the show. Nevertheless, many of the performances seemed the execution of caricatures and lacked a sense of true emotional depth, which is arguably different than a surface passion for the project. While certain actors like Deosick Burney (Collins) absolutely thrills vocally, interpreting the music with incredible soul and uniqueness, the acting performance does little to support this talent.
Furthermore, the relationships between some of the main characters were entirely under-developed. I never once felt myself believing Collins' (Deosick Burney) discovery of Angel (Benajamin Alicea) to be synergistic by any stretch of the imagination and the development of their love was equally as vague. This makes it hard to feel worked up to Angel's ultimate death despite how wonderfully the show itself delivers that moment. Josie Yount as Maureen and Amelia Harris as Joanne seem, however, to break the trend and deliver strong performances both individually and collectively.
It was the vocals that remain the most memorable part of the experience of this production. The company, as a whole, was very strong, blending well and delivering a crisp musical interpretation. Certain vocalists seemed a little stretched at week two, most noticeably, Enrico Banson as Roger. While there were wonderful qualities to his Adam Pascal-ish voice, as the notes got higher so did too the screaming to reach them. By the end of the show it seemed impossible not to grip the seat with tension, wondering if he was going to make it to the final cry of "Mimi!" in "Your Eyes."
Ultimately, if you want to see a production of Rent, preserved in all its original choices, then you truly will love this production. The show, however, offers little to make the work relevant to a modern, post-Broadway production audience. To pretend that this is still 1996 and that the show remains the voice of our times is to shut out a hard reality. To truly recapture the essence of what Rent was and is, as I believe director Jerianne Branson aimed to do, it needs to find itself constantly alive in the current moment, not paying strict homage to what once was.
RENT opened Friday, March 18, 2011 and runs through Sunday, April 23, 2011 at:
Hudson Backstage Theatre
6539 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Friday & Saturday @ 8pm, Sundays @ 3pm
For reservations call: 323-960-7822