Theater Review: RENT (American Theater Company)

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by Dan Zeff on May 8, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


As soon as David Cromer was announced as the director, the revival of Rent became one of the buzz productions of the season, Cromer being one of the hottest directors in the country. His reputation soared with a revelatory revival of Our Town in Chicago and later in New York City and Los Angeles. Would he serve up the same magic with Rent? Absolutely. Fans of the show will be delighted by the drama and theatricality of Cromer’s vision of the play as he weaves a young and enthusiastic company of 15 players into a credible East Village subculture; this revival is also a fine introduction for first time audiences. Yet, while I have nothing but admiration for Cromer and his committed and versatile cast, the satisfying production of this iconic musical still has inherent problems. Also, Rent is very much a product of its time, and if not dated, its urgency has faded, at least the AIDS element. I respect Rent, but I still don’t love it.

Dan Zeff Chicago Review of Rent at American Theater Company

Rent has a romantic history: Jonathan Larson, its author and composer, died suddenly of an aortic aneurism on Jan. 25, 1996, 10 days before his 36th birthday and the day before the musical’s first preview performance Off-Off-Broadway. In a matter of months the show had transferred to Broadway where it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and ran for more than 12 years.

The musical is based on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, shifting the time and scene from nineteenth century Paris to New York City’s dilapidated East Village circa 1990. Like the Puccini opera, it portrays a group of young people living a bohemian life as society’s outsiders. The major characters are variously homosexuals, lesbians, and drug addicts, some of whom are afflicted with AIDS or HIV. They exist in squalor and poverty, but they have bonded into a community, though often a contentious one.

Dan Zeff Chicago Review of Rent at American Theater Company

The narrator is an independent filmmaker named Mark Cohen. The chief characters are Mimi, a druggie dancer, and Mark’s roommate Roger, a composer who expects to die of AIDS and desperately wants to write one great song as his legacy. They are joined by Tom Collins, a gay anarchist professor and his lover, a drag queen named Angel, and the lesbian lovers Joanne and Maureen. The central characters are joined by a swirl of other men and women, mostly denizens of the East Village scene.

Larson’s score is a mix of rock, rap, and gospel, the best-known number being the recurring “Seasons of Love.” The storyline lurches from one short scene to another, more a portrait of marginalized young people as a class than a coherent narrative. Larson may have revised the show had he lived, but we’ll never know. The opening scenes are slow and the show doesn’t really hit its stride until the middle of the first act.

Dan Zeff Chicago Review of Rent at American Theater Company

Cromer remains faithful to Rent’s spirit, but he has also illuminated individual scenes to emphasize their emotional impact and sometimes their comedy. He’s freshened up the musical numbers, assisted by Jessica Redish’s lively and distinctive choreography. The crowd scenes are especially vibrant, topped by the long “La Vie Boheme” scene that ends the first act.

Yet even the inventive Cromer cannot fix the show’s glitches: there is a smugness about the grubby lifestyle of Mimi, Roger, Mark, and their cohorts; the outside world is treated with condescension, with easy jokes about areas like the Hamptons, Westport, and Scarsdale, the bastions of the scorned middle- and upper-class; if a character has money, he/she is mocked; and when the middle-class parents of several of the characters telephone their offspring, their calls are treated as comedy, as if parental concern for children enduring the disease and poverty of the East Village is a topic for ridicule.

Dan Zeff Chicago Review of Rent at American Theater CompanyDerrick Trumbly is superb as the anguished Roger, trying to leave some mark behind him as he faces AIDS. Grace Gealey has a strong voice as Mimi but I have always found the character unsympathetic and underqualified for Roger’s love, and Gealey’s performance didn’t change my mind. Alan Schmuckler is fine as Mark Cohen and Alex Agard is the most three-dimensional Tom Collins I’ve ever seen – indeed, at a funeral (beautifully staged by Cromer) Agard’s grief is the most moving moment in the show. Esteban Andres Cruz is suitably swishy and flamboyant as the drag queen, and Lili-Anne Brown and Aileen May are good as the quarreling lovers Maureen and Joanne. Tony Santiago does what he can with the thankless role of Benny, who married money and is thus rejected as a sell-out by his grungy friends. The seven all-purpose performers who make up the chorus are superior in creating the panorama of East Village characters.

The production is being co-sponsored by the American Theater Company and the About Face Theatre, with ATC providing the performance space, which has been reduced to an intimate open area with the audience placed on two parallel sides. Patrons sitting in the first row are often within easy touching distance of the actors. High praise must go to the small band conducted by Timothy Splain. The four musicians sit in a loft above and behind the stage and perform Larson’s multifaceted score with a commendable absence of raucous decibels. Collette Pollard designed the minimalist set, Heather Gilbert the lighting, Victoria Delorio the sound, and David Hyman the thrift shop chic costumes.

Dan Zeff Chicago Review of Rent at American Theater CompanyRent has been called the Hair of the Nineties, an unfortunate comparison: Rent deals with a narrow group of characters locked into a small area of New York City, while Hair encompasses the entire country during the Vietnam War years; plus, Hair’s music is more varied, and its characters better-rounded and more entertaining. But it’s easy to understand why Rent attracted such a youthful audience. All those characters living free of humdrum responsibilities must look enticing to youthful patrons leading earthbound middle-class lives, even as the characters have gotten themselves into a bad scene with their sexual promiscuity and drugs. Youthful audiences might romanticize the lives of those East Village free spirits, but I doubt that many of them would really want to change places with Roger, Mimi, Angel, Tom, and their colleagues.

photos by Michael Brosilow

American Theater Company
ends on June 17 EXTENDED to July 1, 2012

[on March 4, 2018, American Theater Company
ceased operations; more on this story at Chicago Tribune]

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Alan B May 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Chris Jones basically says no one can sing their parts. Did you feel the same?


Dan Zeff May 9, 2012 at 2:46 pm

I thought Chris was hard on the show. The first half of his review was very laudatory but he just didn’t like the singing. The show wasn’t particularly well-sung, but this is not a show for slick singing. It’s best-suited for passion and sincerity rather than bell-like tones. I’ve seen the show several times and none of them were performed with singing in the traditional Broadway musical style. I did disagree with his criticism of Derrick Trumbly, who I thought was outstanding. I am not a great fan of Rent but I thought the staging gave me insights into the show I hadn’t noticed before. That trumped the sometimes uncertain singing.


Cedric May 9, 2012 at 3:40 pm

But it’s a musical! While I appreciate Mr Cromer’s vision, shouldn’t he have adapted Rent into a non-singing piece if he knew he’d hire actors that ‘kinda’ sing?


Danny May 10, 2012 at 3:23 pm

This was the WORST rendition of Rent I have ever seen! Mimi can sing, Roger is almost a singer, Maureen and Collins can kind-of sing, but the rest aren’t even close. Angel was horrifying, disgusting, and made me want to leave anytime he was onstage. What really upset me is that they changed “Seasons of Love.” The song doesn’t build to any apex as it should. I wanted to stand up in the audience at the end and scream at them, “NOW GO BACK TO THE TOP AND DO IT RIGHT!” The other part of this production that irks me is the lack of normal interaction. I feel as though the actors were directed poorly. I didn’t feel the friendship between Mark and Roger, and I didn’t feel the love between Angel and Collins (even though there is nothing to love about Angel’s performance). Cromer let us down and ruined one of my favorite shows. As the director, he needs to have the ability to step back and see what we see, not force an obviously wrong decision down our throats.


Joe May 12, 2012 at 5:43 am

Mr. Cromer does not have license to “adapt” a musical into a non-musical. ATC purchased the rights to stage this show, and if they did not have the musical talent to do it justice then they should have chosen a different show, preferably a non musical.


Kevin W June 8, 2012 at 11:41 pm

I have seen this productions twice now and I have to disagree with this review. I think the reviewer might have missed the entire point of this interpretation. If you’re attending this show expecting an over-produced, glamorized version of this story with people who can sing pitch-perfect… well… then you may want to wait until it is produced somewhere downtown again. I think the direction of this show is to examine what a desperate and tragic period this was in American history. While I, too, fell in love with the original Broadway production of this show, it views that time through rose-tinted glasses and I don’t believe you have the chance to see the depth of emotion involved in the story. Personally, I think there is a bit of empathy lacking from this review. It’s easy to judge other people’s situations, but I think this show did an amazing job of showing things through a realistic lens. I LOVED that David Cromer didn’t cast traditional singers in this show, but instead chose to focus on the story and emotion. I think it makes it much more relatable. I cannot recommend seeing this show enough (that is unless you have a difficult time with change…then I would repeat my statement at the top).


Danny July 17, 2012 at 9:22 am

In response to Kevin W: A musical is not a musical without singers. Period. I understood Cromer’s epic fail of an attempt to bring the gritty side of this show out…you’re missing my point. I personally believe if doing a musical is where your mindset is at than you MUST hire singers. Especially for a show like this one, as loved as this one is. Epic fail on Cromer’s part. Epic fail on the theater’s part for allowing this. Hopefully the young cast isn’t tarnished by a horrible choice made by their director.


David June 20, 2012 at 11:03 pm

I saw this production on Saturday, June 9. In response to Danny, who found Angel “horrifying” and “disgusting,” Angel was apparently recast, as according to my programme the role was performed that evening by Eduardo Placer… the recasting may have made a difference in the performance you attended and one I did.

I immediately fell in love with the intimacy of the venue itself. The starkness of the concrete floor, the exposed ductwork, etc., lent itself well to the grittiness that is the story of Rent. Sitting in the second row, I almost felt like I was sitting on a stool on stage in the wings had it been staged in, say, the Chicago Theatre or the Oriental.

Was it technically a superb performance? No; there were some pitch problems, which were all the more apparent given the proximity of the actors to the audience. But that was outweighed by the intensity of the performers, particularly Roger, Mimi and Collins.

I, too, am a “Renthead,” and have seen numerous performances both on Broadway as well as touring companies, and, of course, the film version and the DVD of the closing night on Broadway. My chief complaint was that much of the charm of Angel as a street percussionist was lost in this show — most notably in “Today 4 U” as there was virtually none whereas it is the focal point in the Broadway/film versions. Also, there was a distinct lack of connection between cast members in “Seasons of Love” and thus seemed almost anti-climactic. Perhaps it was simply beyond the casts’ vocal capability.

I also felt a distinct lack of connection between the audience and the cast that evening; more so on the part of the audience than the cast. They (the audience) seemed listless and on the verge of boredom, which this performance certainly did not warrant. Although, having sat in the second row and mouthed the words to nearly every song as Rentheads are known to do, and this did not go unnoticed by the cast, particularly during “Finale B (No Day But Today)”. I received more than one grateful nod or smile of appreciation from the cast for that.

Would I recommend seeing this show? Yes, absolutely, particularly for those new to Rent. In fact, I have tickets to another performance at the end of the month. Mr. Cromer’s direction of this show highlights the story behind the story of Rent — the angst, anguish and triumph of the individual characters vs. a technically, vocally superb performance. Kudos also to Timothy Splain and the band for their wonderful, technically excellent addition to this show.


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