Thursday, August 18, 2011

RENT @ New World Stages - Stage 1

After only three short years, the mega-hit, rock opera RENT has returned to New York – this time with a whole new attitude.  New World Stages, one of Off-Broadway’s leading companies, has assembled a team of fresh young actors, an imaginative design team, and RENT’s original director – Michael Greif – to give this classic show a whole new look, feel, and vibe.  With talent beyond measure and edgy technical elements, the newly imagined RENT is fun, moving, and all around better than ever before.  Skip the Hollywood version and forget about the Broadway version, simply go check out the kick ass new production currently playing at New World Stages!
For those not familiar with the story of RENT (a.k.a. those living under a rock), it is a rock opera that tells the story of seven individuals whose lives all come together through art, love, and disease – taking a ground breaking look into the world of AIDS.  Mark Cohen, a filmmaker, and Roger Davis, a musician, live in a run-down apparent in New York’s Lower East Side.  Over the course of one year, Mark helps former girlfriend Maureen Johnson (now dating Joanne Jefferson) pull of a performance protest; Roger falls for the dancer next door, Mimi Marquez; and both friends reunite with former roommate Tom Collins (now dating the loving cross dresser Angel Dumott Schunard).  As friendships are made and broken, these friends all learn the importance of life and love.
Bringing the world of RENT to life is an ensemble of fourteen incredibly talented performers – led by Adam Chanler-Berat as Mark and Matt Shingledecker as Roger.  Chanler-Berat (Broadway’s Next to Normal) gives Mark a soft side making him easily relatable.  The audience is always fighting for his character to prevail – whether it be in the world of television or simply in his friendships, one cannot help but see a piece of this character in oneself.  Shingledecker (Broadway’s West Side Story), with his strong rock voice, finds the humor in Roger making him a much more down to earth character.  Shingledecker gives depth to Roger so that he not tough and edgy as usually portrayed; his depiction of this character is much lighter and refreshing than audiences might be expecting.  Bringing in some girl power is Arianda Fernandez (RENT National Tour) as the sexy yet sweet Mimi.  Fernandez brings in the triple threat – great vocals, acting and dancing.  Fernandez also reins as champion when it comes to the cheesy RENT ending with her character coming back to life; making it realistic and not over the top and fake.  RENT features two powerhouse couples that time and time again please audiences.  Pair number one is that of Collins (played by Nicholas Christopher – In the Heights National Tour) and Angel (played by MJ Rodriguez).  These two men had wonderful chemistry together and truly made the parts their own.  Christopher gave the audience chills with his performance of I’ll Cover You (reprise); and, Rodriguez made Angle everything that character is supposed to be – smart, funny as hell, sexy, and all around passionate.  The other lovers are Joanne (played by Corbin Reid – Broadway’s Sister Act) and Maureen (Annaleigh Ashford – Broadway’s Legally Blonde).  Reid spun a new twist on the character of Joanne making her less aggressive and angry – making her smart and powerful, yet fiery – a risk that totally paid off.  Ashford delivers the performance of a life time, taking a part that has been done by some of Broadway’s best and making it her own – probably even doing it better.  Her song Over the Moon is the scene stealer of the show – fresh, quirky, hysterical, and deeply touching are all new emotions that this song takes on.  Ashford delivers an all around brilliant performance.
One might think that it is hard to re-imagine the original when the original director is the one behind it all; however, this could not be further from the truth.  Director Michael Greif (Broadway’s RENT and Next to Normal) once again tackles Jonathan Larson’s rich book, music, and lyrics with a new eye.  Fused with a innovative creative team, Greif is able to not only recreate his original masterpiece, he is able to exceed it.  Leading the design team is scenic designer Mark Wendland (Broadway’s Next to Normal) who creates a New York jungle-jim out of metal pipes, stairs, moving platforms, dozens of candles, and a few hundred string lights (including a light up reindeer).  Adding to this work is the advanced imagery created by projection designer Peter Nigrini (Broadway’s 9 to 5).  Mixing live video feed and simple yet effective images, Nigrini brings RENT into the new dawn of theatre projection.  Lighting all of the energy boosted cast and twists of the set is designer Kevin Adams (three-time Tony Award winner).  Bringing arena concert lighting to the Broadway stage, Adams does a stunning job of making the crazy world of New York’s Lower East Side shine.  Rounding out this team is costume designer Angela Wendt (Broadway’s RENT).  Mixing that classic RENT look with new elements, Wendt helps delivers an overall visual feast for the eyes.
RENT is back and better than ever!  This retooling is smart, real, and all around brilliant!  With a hip new cast and stunning visual elements, this production proves that not only can a revival surpass its original, but also that Off-Broadway is a force to be reckoned with.  There is "no day but today" to see the new and improved RENT!

Review By: James Russo

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