So here’s the thing about the musical Rent. It’s a musical. It matters little how effective the acting and the staging are when you’ve got an ensemble that isn’t up to the high demands of Jonathan Larson’s extraordinary score. And therein lies the root of the problem with American Theater Company’s down-and-dirty staging of the show (produced in association with About Face Theater Company). Directed by David Cromer, everything about this piece looks right – the garbage-strewn griminess of New York’s Alphabet City neighborhood circa 1995, the grungy squeegee men trying to make an honest living, the grungier homeless folk pushing their shopping carts amid discarded bags of trash, the 20something struggling artists who look like they haven’t washed or changed their clothes in months. But little sounds quite right. This is not a cast of singers, and that leaves Larson’s resplendent score out in the cold.
That’s a shame, because there is so much about Cromer’s take on Rent that works. In its original Broadway version, the struggling artists – performance artist Maureen, musician Roger, aspiring filmmaker Mark – and their equally hard-up friends looked incredibly neat and tidy for a crew living hand to mouth in an abandoned warehouse with only intermittent electricity. As for drag queen Angel DuMott Schunard, previous incarnations of Rent always had her looking like a highly polished finalist on RuPaul’s Drag Race rather than a scrappy street kid outfitted in thrift shop couture. Cromer’s cast is a far more realistic group. Angel is tattered. Roger has the thousand-yard-stare of a trauma survivor. Maureen has badly dyed pink highlights and a skintight catsuit that’s definitely seen better days. Mark has the scruffiness of an urban Grizzly Adams. In short, this group appears authentically marginalized. There’s no gloss to them, just raggedy edges and not-so-quiet desperation.
There is also an intimacy to Cromer’s staging that serves the piece well. This is the story of a self-made family struggling with everything from money to disease to sex. On a big Broadway-style stage, those struggles often seemed more cinematic than real. They were removed from the audience by both physical space and expensive production values. Here, everything is intensely up close and intimate. One of the most powerful moments occurs at the top of Act II, when the full cast delivers a soaring Seasons of Love while standing mere breaths away from the first row of the audience. The proximity gives the number an urgency and an aching sense of comingled despair and hope. It’s gorgeous, and intensely moving. The same power shows up in Act I, when the attendees of an Aids support group sing their affirmations. It’s an anthemic call to celebrate the here and now, a timely reminder to treasure each moment as if it might be your last.
Unfortunately when the cast isn’t singing en masse, the music deteriorates. As Angel, Esteban Andres Cruz steals every scene he’s in with his sass and sparkle, but when he launches into Today 4 U it’s clear he’s far more an actor than a vocalist. (Moreover, Cruz is done a grave disservice in a scene depicting the ravages of Aids. Dancing in almost total darkness, he’s impossible to see. That murkiness robs the scene of its potential power. )
Also struggling vocally opening night was Derrick Trumbly, whose Roger had some unfortunate cracks and croaks on the power ballad One Song, Glory. At times, it’s as if Trumbly was trying to compensate with volume where he stumbled in pitch. It’s a tradeoff that doesn’t work. As aspiring filmmaker Mark Cohen, Alan Schmuckler fares better. An accomplished composer as well as an actor/singer, he doesn’t struggle with pitch to the extent that so many of the other leads do. He also has the detached earnestness the character demands – this is, after all, a young man who interacts primarily through the lens of a camcorder.
Beyond the vocals, there’s a second problem with the sound in Rent and that problem lies in the band. Although it’s tucked in an alcove above the stage, it still manages to overpower the vocals consistently. And it doesn’t overpower them with the rich sound of a full orchestra but with the sometimes tinny sounds of a bare bones combo.
In the end, this is as divided Rent. Cromer’s gritty concept is strong, well-executed and in-your-face enough to give the story an ardent urgency. But almost every time the music starts, Rent falters.
For reviews of earlier shows directed by David Cromer click here (Our Town),and here (Streetcar Named Desire.) For reviews of earlier shows at the American Theatre Company click here (The Original Grease), here (Yeast Nation), here (Top Dog/Underdog) and here (Hedwig and the Angry Inch.)