A review of “Rent” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for strong language, drug use and sexuality

Run Time: 2 hours, 8 minutes

 

 

It’s the season of love in this vigorous adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s tragic take on a cluster of young New Yorkers infected with the AIDS virus.

Director Chris Columbus forsakes Larson’s steely edge for a more accessible vibe. The story kicks off with East Village loft roomies Mark Cohen and Roger Davis (Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal) emerging from a difficult year. The rent isn’t paid, Roger is recovering from a stint in rehab and the suicide of his HIV-positive girlfriend, and Mark struggles to survive by creating “art” with his hand-held camcorder.

When former roommate Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) reappears after a long absence a chain of events is set in motion. A street mugging unexpectedly acquaints Collins with transvestite street drummer and soon-to-be soulmate Angel Shunard (Wilson Jermaine Heredia).

Shortly thereafter Roger meets and falls for downstairs neighbor cum junkie cum exotic dancer Mimi Marquez (Rosario Dawson). Mark’s ex Maureen (Idina Menzel) stages a housing protest with her new lover Joanne (Tracie Thoms) while former buddy Benny (Taye Diggs) makes incessant rent demands from his lofty uptown perch.

Physiological fortunes rise and fall for these impassioned bohemians while they struggle with the excessive baggage of relationships, illness and social disaffection. All set to the blistering music and lyrics of Larson, who died of a brain aneurysm the night before “Rent” made its off-Broadway debut in 1996.

More rock opera than musical, “Rent” has energy to spare. Soft-selling Columbus nails a few of the music numbers spot on (“Seasons of Love”, “La Vie Boheme”, “Tango: Maureen”), wringing every last drop of melodrama from Larson’s tuneful stylings.

But all is not rosy in Rent-town. Dawson is poorly cast as the tragic Mimi; she’s a semi-talented actress who can just carry a tune pitted against the vibrant vocally-skilled Broadway originals. Columbus offers his narrative the proper respect but takes liberties with the move from stage to screen, adding cheesy locales, some awkward transitions and a subtle sheen of manipulation.

Jesse L. Martin is delicious as Collins, his deep baritone going down as smooth as hot chocolate. Yum. Rapp is every bit the Mark he was on stage, infusing his easygoing observer with something unfathomable and comfortably out of reach.

I bring a lot of baggage to this project having seen it five times on stage. Consequently there are inevitable comparisons that are hard to ignore. But the soul of Larson’s then-timely passion play is intact; bring on the Sing-A-Long version.