Perhaps it’s the smaller off-Broadway house at New World Stages that make the relationships feel so much more intimate than the stage of the Nederlander. Rodger's relationship with Mimi, played with delightful coyness by the lovely Arianda Fernandez, breaks your heart. We see the still struggling addict, Mimi, and the recovering addict, Mark, their relationship teetering on the brink. To make matters worse, Mimi still has a thing for Benny (Ephraim Sykes), Mark’s former roommate whose family now owns the building they are all living in. The relationship between the cross-dressing Angel and Tom Collins feels so real. The two men playing the roles, MJ Rodriguez as Angel and Nicholas Christopher as Tom Collins, feel so connected that it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the two men are an item off the stage. Rodriguez is hot as Angel. His "Today 4 U" is a stand-out moment in the show. Christopher plays Collins with a masculine, yet vulnerable side. His "I'll Cover You" reprise is heart wrenching.
Performance artist Maureen, played by Annaleigh Ashford, is hilarious during her public demonstration, “Over the Moon.” Her lover, Joanne, played by Corbin Reid finds herself in the uncomfortable situation of having to come face to face with Maureen’s former lover, Mark. Out of this comes “The Tango Maureen.”
Jonathan Larson based Rent loosely on Puccini's La bohème (itself being based on Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger.) Vignettes portraying young bohemians living in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s have been transported to New York's Alphabet City in the early days of the AIDS crisis. Also like La bohème, Rent doesn't focus so much on a unifying plot as it does on the myriad dynamics among the "family" of outsider artists, many with HIV, living in a run-down tenement. The fact is, the struggles these artists are going through can be seen as symbolic of other parts of the world where people are struggling and sick in large numbers (think Somalia). Despite some criticism that Rent is dated, I found it genuine and relevant.
The ensemble is vocally strong and blends nicely. At times, I did feel like they were not with the band. The band was upstage of them and up one level on the two level set.
Michael Greif’s direction is almost ballet like. He works the cast in and out of the complex set sleekly and smoothly. The set design by Mark Wendland is perfect for the space. It recreates New York fire-escapes with one of the sets of giant stairs being rotated into different positions for different scenes. The set is beautifully lit by Angela Wendt. The projections by Peter Nigrini are clever. This new, smaller set really forces the actors to confront each other in closer proximity than did the Broadway production and that pays off nicely for this production
Whether you are a Rent-head or not, go see this new production. If you want to discuss this production with other fellow theatre-lovers, visit the Rent discussion group at TheAndyCamp, the first social network for theatre lovers and professionals.