Does Nearly Naked Theatre's Rent Live Up to the Musical's Hype?

I'm not a big Rent fan. I know: It's a musical theater milestone; it single-handedly revived the sung-through musical; its monster success here and abroad introduced a whole new generation to musical theater. It won the Pulitzer Prize, four Tony awards, and a half-dozen Drama Desk Awards. Blah blah blah.

Yet I find myself mostly lost, every time I attend a performance of this big, bloated rock opera. Each time, I swear I'm really going to concentrate; to follow the story; to listen to the simple couplets in hopes of finding a deeper meaning in its story of 20-somethings squatting in the East Village in the early days of AIDS. And always I fail. And not because I'm middle-aged and need my musicals to feature kick lines and chorines. I came of age with Performance and The Rocky Horror Show and Tommy; I know from grungy camp-rock musicals. Mostly, I'm just not convinced that Jonathan Larson's musical lives up to its ultra-huge hype.

Rent does for the gloomy '90s what Hair, by rights its musical theater cousin, did for the dying hippie culture of the late '60s. It typifies and stereotypes end-of-an-era counterculture kids who eschew financial gain and strive instead for free love, artistic liberty, and grunge chic. Like its equally pedigreed predecessor, Rent contains a couple of catchy melodies (I defy you to exit the theater not humming the refrain from "Seasons of Love"), but also a lot of forgettable cacophony in between.

Time for your close-up: Powell and Errigo make music.
Time for your close-up: Powell and Errigo make music.

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Rent
continues through September 12 at the Little Theater at Phoenix Theatre, 100 West McDowell. Call 602-254-2151 or visit Nearly Naked.

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What Rent doesn't do is leave me wanting more. I don't, in the long run, care about any of these neurotic kids who believe, long after it's fashionable, that money is evil and having some will destroy their art. Nor am I convinced that their protests on behalf of art, love, and the homeless are especially sincere. And in a way, that's the real achievement of the late Larson's musical. It depicts Generation X as a lot of pretty poseurs whose main occupation was navel-gazing in a time of crisis.

That said, I must admit that the closest I've come to liking Rent was this past weekend, while watching Nearly Naked Theatre's expertly untidy production. No one who's read my past reviews of this courageous company's work will be surprised to read, yet again, that I'm a huge fan of pretty much everything they do. Any troupe that can make me like a big, blowsy tuner like Rent gets my vote. Again.

They've done it with some charming performances, particularly Jason Powell's as our nerdy narrator, Mark Cohen, and sweet-voiced David Errigo Jr., in the lead role of rock misfit Roger Davis. Unfortunately, Rent is so overrun with characters meant to depict every East Village archetype of the era (hooker, heroin addict, HIV-positive homosexual, drag queen) that there's precious little time for anyone to shine. Still, we get nice bits from Damon Bolling, who's never sounded better, and from Israel Jiménez, who proves that Angel is more than a mannequin with some truly touching moments throughout (no mean feat considering Doug Loynd's marvelously eccentric costumes for this character, who at one point arrives onstage in a skirt made from an umbrella). And Raven Woessner appears to be channeling people she can't possibly have known; her drug-addled Mimi is pitch-perfect, even slightly scary.

The production is marred by the usual shortcomings encountered by a small company attempting a big production: pleasant choreography inexpertly executed by non-dancers; crowded ensemble scenes; tardy set changes. But the six-piece live rock band loves Larson's score, a fact that goes a long way toward making this a likable Rent for any crowd.

 
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