There are three basic ways you can find a place to live: You can own, rent, or squat. There is no stage musical called Own, because telling the story of a couple who buys a house is dull (unless it's the 1986 movie The Money Pit, which is hilarious).
However, there is a musical called Rent which opened more than 20 years ago and changed the face of musical theater. This rock musical based on the opera La Boheme tracks the story of a group of down-and-out young artistic hopefuls hanging out in New York City's dilapidated East Village around Christmas in the early 1990s. They each have hope for the future, but are battling a lack of heat, a lack of food and the fairly new scourge of AIDS.
The material — with book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, who tragically died just prior to seeing his creation achieve monumental success off-Broadway two decades ago — is just as strong as ever. The backstory is also heartbreaking, since Larson had worked waiting tables for years as he labored on his masterpiece. The only bigger tragedy would have been if he had died before his play was finished.
Unfortunately, this 20th anniversary tour of Rent might be more accurately titled Squat, because the performers on the Connor Palace stage seem like interlopers who are unlawfully occupying this iconic theatrical territory. Whether they're suffering from a severe case of tour burnout or they just don't have the chops to deliver this material as required is an open question.
Either way, it's clear that this Rent directed by Evan Ensign does not do the original, which was directed by Michael Greif, justice. Even at first glance the show seems off-kilter since Paul Clay's overly complicated set design, featuring a large metal junk sculpture through which the actors meander, is more attention-getting than useful or symbolic.
Looking past the scenic disarray, the characters themselves feel like they're being seen through a haze, due to indifferent acting. Maybe this tour should have taken a few more stops at Waffle House joints along the way to restore their energy. Sammy Ferber and Logan Farine play the pivotal duo of roommates Mark (the wannabe filmmaker) and Roger (the wannabe rock guitarist). These are the two guys around whom everyone else orbits for the duration of the play. Even though Ferber does what he can to invest Mark with some neurotic tendencies, Farine's Roger is a virtual non-presence on stage, plucking at his guitar and avoiding eye contact with his fellow actors whenever possible.
And things don't noticeably improve when the exotic dancer Mimi (Destiny Diamond) appears and starts to flirt with Roger. The sexual tension that should be ignited in their song "Light My Candle" is extinguished due in part to Farine's lack of stage presence and Diamond's faltering voice, which is even more apparent in her later solo, "Today 4 U." The rendition of that up-tempo song by Diamond is more like a slow decomposition, accompanied by a less-than-spirited execution of Marlies Yearby's gymnastic choreography.
As couples go in this uninspired show, bisexual Tom Collins (the splendidly voiced Josh Walker) and drag queen Angel (Aaron Alcaraz) fare the best. But even their doomed relationship doesn't generate the kind of emotion it should. This may be due in part to the fact that, thankfully, AIDS is no longer mowing down young people at the rate it was in the 1990s. But even though Walker and Alcaraz sing their parts well, there is little electricity in their stage interaction.
The featured lesbian couple is composed of Joanne (Jasmine Easler) and the much-desired Maureen, who is the former flame of Mark. Once again, this hot relationship never gets past simmer. And when Lyndie Moe as Maureen performs "Over the Moon," a political parody of the children's rhyme "Hey Diddle, Diddle," she tweaks her ample boobs every time she says "milk." Um, we get it.
Is everything in this production low-Rent? Well, no. The Act 2 opener, when the cast stands in a line downstage and delivers "Season of Love," is powerful and downright spine tingling. The song is energized by a brief solo part sung by ensemble member Alana Cauthen, a soaring and pitch-perfect performance that received the most enthusiastic response of the night from the audience. In that moment, it was clear what the rest of the show lacked: performances that grab the moment, take chances, and take off for the heights.
Perhaps this 20th anniversary tour would have been better imagined as a concert version, paying simple tribute to Larson's musical genius without all the gimcrackery of bloated scenic design and character portrayals that never quite work. Rent has a great deal to say about the necessity for all of us to treat each other well, especially at a time when there's not a lot of compassion emanating from our government. It's just too bad that this production squats where it should have soared.