Back to the heart of 'Rent'
Palo Alto Players production reminds us why the original '90s hit made it big
In 1996, as an audience member about to see "Rent" on Broadway, I knew several things. This was the hottest show on Broadway in a long, long time. Jonathan Larson, the composer and creative force behind the show, had died tragically the night before the show opened in its off-Broadway incarnation. And '80s pixie pop princess Debbie Gibson was sitting directly in front of me.
Fourteen years ago, "Rent" blew my mind. Rock music had finally arrived on Broadway without any apology. For months after I saw the show, I listened almost exclusively to the original cast album and reveled in Larson's attempt to blend Sondheim sophistication with the gritty, raw power of contemporary pop rock.
Then, through no fault of its own, "Rent" became a spoof of itself. For proof, look no further than the marionette movie "Team America: World Police" and its satirical version of the show called "Lease." Though "Rent" won the Pulitzer Prize and ran for more than a decade on Broadway, it became a victim of its own success.
The movie version, which employed almost all of the original cast, was a flop both creatively and commercially thanks largely to director Chris Columbus' limited vision of the show. Last year, a touring production of the show, featuring original stars Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, limped through San Francisco revealing "Rent" to be, in spite of some lingering charms, a relic of the '90s.
Way back in 1996, I did find myself wondering what the show, with its drug use, AIDS-support groups, drag queens, gay relationships and unapologetic grittiness, would be like when it started to play the community theater circuit.
What I couldn't have imagined then was that just such a community theater production — the current Palo Alto Players production, to be specific — would remind me why I loved the show in the first place.
Certainly, not every small theater group in the country is going to jump at the chance to produce "Rent" and risk alienating audiences that are happy with a steady stream of "Annie" and "The Sound of Music." But Palo Alto Players, a troupe that seems to invite risk, tackles the show courageously and with no holds barred.
I will tell you that at intermission during last Sunday's very senior matinee, the older woman behind me turned to her companion and said, "The voices are fantastic, but this is the most god-awful show I've ever seen." I will also tell you that she came back for Act 2 and stood up at the end (and not because she was beating a hasty retreat).
You can sell "Rent" as a boffo Broadway hit based on Puccini's "La Boheme," but the truth is that the show is a loud, flawed, difficult-to-follow tale of self-indulgent artists living and dying in New York's East Greenwich Village.
If the performers have charm and charisma, all of that will cease to matter because the focus shifts to Larson's dynamic songs and the incredible spirit and energy the show exudes at its very best. That's where director/choreographer Joe Duffy's Palo Alto Players production shines.
Set designer Patrick Klein gets the rough-hewn set just right — Christmas lights adorning chain-link fences, scrappy fliers plastering the walls, urban junk littering the landscape — and lighting designer Jim Gross generates just enough flash (including some blinding bolts directed to the audience) to make this more of a rock 'n' roll experience than traditional musical theater.
From the opening number, it's clear the 15-member cast has the requisite energy to carry the load of this imperfect but eminently loveable show. Scott Fish is Mark Cohen, our guide into the world of these latter-day bohemians, and he's a wonderful singer and actor. As Mark's roommate and best friend, Roger, David Saber is not the usual virile rock-star type frequently cast in this role. He's more sensitive and insecure, which works well with the troubled character and makes his powerful solo, "One Song Glory," all the more effective.
Nicole Frydman as performance artist Maureen and Victoria Morgan as Joanne, Maureen's lawyer lover, steam up the stage in their second-act duet, "Take Me or Leave Me," and Frydman makes the most of Maureen's silly performance piece, "Over the Moon."
Danelle Medeiros makes a sultry Mimi, a young stripper whose affection for Roger isn't quite as strong as her affection for white powder sold in tiny bags. Her big number, "Out Tonight," generates some genuine heat, complete with glitter exploding from her hair.
Brian Conway's take on tragic drag queen Angel benefits tremendously from the costumes by Mary Cravens, who gets every detail spot-on, right down to the ruffled panties, and Tony Murillo Jr.'s Tom Collins is believable as an MIT professor smitten with an unlikely lover.
Musical director Matthew Mattei and his five-piece band re-create the original "Rent" sound with impressive accuracy, though the sound design too often makes them sound like they're playing a really good party a few houses away. It's also hard to make sense of the larger group numbers. For instance, during "Another Day," which cuts to the heart of the show's "no day but today" theme, the sound of the main characters and the ensemble become muddled.
The amazing thing about "Rent" — in 1996 and today — is that in spite of its flaws (awkward lyrics, some ineffective songs, logical lapses in the story), it builds an emotional momentum that has a big payoff at the end. Much like "Hair" did 40 years ago and Green Day's "American Idiot" is doing on Broadway today, "Rent" changed the musical-theater game. The show is dated, and it will never be everybody's favorite musical, but there's still a big heart at its core — a heart that the Palo Alto Players have no trouble finding.
What: "Rent" by Jonathan Larson (additional lyrics, original concepts by Billy Aronson), presented by Palo Alto Players
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through May 9, at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sundays
Cost: Tickets are $30 with student, senior and educator discounts.
Info: Go to www.paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.