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A loud letdown

By Bence Olveczky

Musical by Jonathan Larson inspired by Puccinis La Boheme

At Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont St.

Through 7/25

More info at (800) 447-7400

If you believe what critics say (and I sincerely hope that you don’t), then Rent, now playing at the Shubert Theatre, is “a raw and riveting milestone in musical theater” (Rolling Stone), “a landmark rock opera” (The New York Times), and “the most exuberant and original musical to come along in a decade” (Time), “if not decades” (Variety). Any more bids? Yes, Wall Street Journal, please go ahead: “[Rent is] the best new musical since the 1950’s.” Thank you gentlemen, that’s enough.

When you’re witnessing a show that arrives on such a giant wave of hype and endorsement, you’re anxiously waiting for the wave to finally break and engulf you in its thunderous surf; you want it to throw you off-balance, shock your system, and wash you up on the shores of your every day existence as a transformed human being. But in Rent the cathartic moment never comes: the experience is more like a cold shower, waking you up to the fact that it takes more then media hype and Tony awards to make a great musical.

Rent was written and composed by Jonathan Larson, a bohemian artist from one of the more creative corners of Manhattan. Tragically, Larson wasn’t around to witness the success of his show: he dropped dead in his Greenwich Village apartment on the evening of Rent’s last dress rehearsal in January of 1996. In his last interview, two hours before he died, the 35 year-old composer told New York Times that he wrote the “Hair of the 90’s.”

Hair, written by two out-of-work artists from the East Village more than thirty years ago, perfectly captured the Zeitgeist of a whole generation and managed to become the hippie movement’s most successful work. In his quest for a similar hit, Larson used the Hair formula, putting contemporary rock music to a story about East Village bohemians who scorn material success in favor of personal and artistic freedom, friendship, and love.

If Hair gave Rent its context, theme, and raison d’Ítre, it was another classic, La Boheme, that lent it the story. Larson’s musical is loosely based on Puccini’s opera about struggling artists in Paris. The action has moved to Manhattan, and Rodolpho, Marcello, and Colline have become Roger, Mark, and Tom Collins, but the main dramatic line remains the same: how to pay, or not to pay, the rent.

Roger and Mark are roommates sharing a tiny apartment in East Village. Besides agonizing over the rent, they are both haunted by memories of ex-girlfriends. Mark, a wannabe film maker, has been dumped by Maureen who now dates Harvard graduate and full-time lesbian Joanne, while his friend Roger laments the suicide of his former lover. But Roger’s moodiness quickly fades when Mimi -- sexy, HIV positive, and positively flirtatious -- knocks on his door. We follow their romance, and the relationships of their friends and enemies in the East Village. One such friend is Tom Collins, a computer wizard turned homosexual, who comes back to squat in the East Village after having been a professor at MIT (so that’s where they all go!).

Rents main weakness is that it tries too hard to be too many things. Hair and La Boheme are just for starters; Rent is first and foremost Larson’s attempt to portray the counter-culture of his peers in East Village. The result is a multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-sexual blend (hetero, homo, bi, and trans all fit in nicely), with enough anti-establishment sentiments, AIDS, and drugs to give it the necessary doomsday feel.

Even the score is careful in not leaving out any trends. There are songs to all contemporary beats, be it rock, funk, soul, or gospel. Again, much of the material sounds familiar. And that’s not to deny the existence of a few catchy melodies like “Seasons of Love” and “Will I?,” but from a musical point of view the tunes are hardly original. In the end, this ambitious cocktail of social misery and youthful strive becomes a clichÉ-ridden and bland musical, romanticizing the life-style of present-day Manhattan bohemia.

While the story is both shallow and inflated, the way it’s told is remarkably brisk. And it’s precisely the explosive energy of the production that is its biggest selling point. Rent is the first musical for the MTV generation, and it’s a truly post-modern ride: fast-paced, loud, and furious. The actors, all young and colorful, play their roles with enthusiasm and involvement, and it is their spirited performances that save the day. Scott Hunt’s grungy-looking Mark makes a good narrator, while Christian Mena brings a powerful voice to Roger, the budding rock musician. Julia Santana portrays Mimi as an edgy babe, with more than enough sexy and funky poses to accompany her somewhat rough voice.

Paul Clay’s vivid stage design successfully transports us to a bohemian East Village neighborhood without striving for too much realism. The spaces occupied by the hip-clad young actors are loosely defined by a trio of tables, a couple of pay phones, and some upper level balconies. The stage is further confined by a large junkyard sculpture on one side and the band on the other. The cast members use the set as their playground, jumping and running all over the place as if in a rock concert, adding further energy and exuberance to the production. Director Michael Greif and choreographer Marlie Yearby make sure that the pace keeps pounding, cleverly preventing the audience from reflecting too much on the actual happenings.

Entertaining and easily forgettable, Rent isn’t a bad production by any means, but neither is it the fantastic and groundbreaking musical it is hyped up to be. More interestingly, Rent is a Broadway phenomenon, created by theatre critics starving for something new and exciting. Larson’s tragic and untimely death, and the painful seven-year genesis of the musical also helped create what has become the media-sanctioned Rent myth.

But even if Rent is now the official epitome of how the American Dream works for struggling artists, it does not account for the show’s success. The fact that millions of teenagers are flocking to the theaters to see Rent can not be explained by raving reviews in the Wall Street Journal alone. No, it’s clear that Rent has a quality that is sorely lacking on Broadway, and this may well be the powerful mix of pace, decibel, energy, and rebellion (even if it’s only a Disney kind of rebellion). The fact that the show won the Pulitzer Prize, four Tony awards, and six Drama Desk Awards is somewhat more perplexing and probably says more about the quality of Broadway musicals in general than about Rent.

Paradoxically, this doesn’t mean that the American musical is in bad shape. One of the true theatrical highlights of the nineties, for me and many other Europeans, was a musical written by three true bohemians, all of them American. Tom Waits, Robert Wilson, and William Burroughs collaborated on The Black Rider, a truly remarkable rock-opera that has been a huge commercial and critical success all over Europe. But 10 years after its German premiere it has yet to be staged by an American company, and I fear that it will never make it to Broadway. And that is, I’m afraid, because exciting and groundbreaking productions can’t afford the Broadway rent.