It's hard not to think about the Occupy protests in New York and across the country when watching the off-Broadway production of Rent. Young people forming a small family of sorts, rallying around an ambitious, yet probably unrealistic, notion that the world could change in just a short period of time. When Rent first came out, it was hailed for giving a voice to the unspoken for people living underground lives. However, today's version seems to lack the passion, enthusiasm, and sense of purpose of the original.
That shouldn't surprise anyone, old fans or newcomers. It's difficult enough for a producers and actors to transport people back in time using clever and innovative tactics to remind people of what the '90s were like in Alphabet City; but it's ever harder to achieve it if you're being forced to live up to the loftiest of expectations - making people experience their favorite musical as if it's the very first time.
In some ways, this show does reflect the original, with both intensity and flair. Arianda Fernandez nails the part of Mimi, looking as if she was born to play the dancer. She commands the stage in her musical numbers with a clear sense of purpose and delivers her notes with full force. But that standard is short-lived, sadly, with other beloved numbers like "Living in America" fail to match that intensity. This is a show that requires the full cast to belt out their lines and try to be as loud as possible, jeopardizing their singing voices in the process. The actors should be belting it out to both show off their impressive skills and to demonstrate the inner angst, longing, and hope they need to express.
This production picks up as it goes, though. In the second act, "Take Me or Leave Me" stands out as a wonderfully personal number between the characters Maureen and Joanne as they wrestle with their relationship and each other. It encapsulates much more than just the story of these two, or even this group of people. The actors really seem to respond to the play's emotional heart in the death of their friend, Angel. It only makes you wish that this kind of devotion had been there all along.
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