PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Rent, Back to Its Roots

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Rent, Back to Its Roots
 
Meet the first-nighters at the Off-Broadway opening of the new production of Jonathan Larson's Rent.

Adam Chanler-Berat; co-stars Annaleigh Ashford, Corbin Reid and Matt Shingledecker
Adam Chanler-Berat; co-stars Annaleigh Ashford, Corbin Reid and Matt Shingledecker Photo by Krissie Fullerton

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Brrrrrr! It's Christmas time in the city, and Starving Artists (East Village Class of '91) huddle together for body heat in their dingy hovel off First Avenue in Alphabet City — coupling, uncoupling, recoupling — wondering where last year's rent's coming from.

Yes, Rent made an unseasonable comeback to the New York stage Aug. 11 — specifically, Off-Broadway, at one of the New World Stages on West 50th — returning at a reduced rate, but its youthful exuberance remains roof-raising.

Nothing crucial about the onetime Broadway show has been lost in its cramped new quarters, and much has been found in this intensely (yet comfortably) compact edition, thanks to some deep rethinking and reinventing by its original Tony-nominated director, Michael Greif.

"I tried to tell the story in some different ways, make it clearer, and I tried to serve the interior environment more fully than we did before," he said. "This space is fantastic for us. I love the size of the house. I love the physical space [set designer Mark Wendland] has created. I love the opportunities the set affords to us." When the 14 principals fall into their iconic formation for "Seasons of Love" at the top of the second act, you can't help but notice its costumer, Angela Wendt, has recently raided the Goodwill store, merrily mussing up her own original look.

Even the brain-burning songs of the late Jonathan Larson give off a new vibe, due to the fresh steps and fire-escape swings added by choreographer Larry Keigwin. That dictates a new lighting design (more Christmas lights) from Kevin Adams.

The show has always been a Stars of Tomorrow incubator, and this new production has a long and limbering gangplank packed with incipient talents ready to make the leap into the vat of La Boheme emotionalism where AIDS is the new TB.

You'll find in the cast some who have conspicuously flittered hither and yon on the New York scene as Peter Pan and Glinda and others who've vocally trained for their roles in shows that Rent helped to happen — Spring Awakening, In the Heights, American Idiot, Xanadu, Next to Normal, et al.

 

Greif, proven star-marker that he is, would not predict who'd be leaving the starting gate first. "I think they're all wonderful," he said diplomatically, "and I hope that people recognize the enormous talents of this group as well."

 

Arianda Fernandez, who plays the tragic Mimi (albeit, not as tragic as Puccini had it), was all of seven when the show opened, and 17 when she first saw Rent. "I was very, very moved by it," she admitted, and that turns out to be the literal truth: The next year she went on national tour as Mimi. "Just having five more years of life and experience on top of that makes it more amazing."

The role's Tony-nominated originator, Daphne Rubin-Vega, crossed her path a couple of days into rehearsal, and she didn't blanche. "It was very brief, but I was so happy to meet her. I never knew she was my size. She's a teeny Mimi, like me."

Matt Shingledecker saw the original production toward the end of its 5,123-performance run at the Nederlander Theatre — the seventh longest in Broadway history — and is now playing the part he initially picked for himself, guitar-toting Roger, Mimi's squeeze, and his most cherished moment is their deathbed duet, "Goodbye, Love." "Arianda is amazing in that scene," he said. "It was such a blessing to know Jonathan's friends and family were there tonight and my friends and family were there. It was such a supportive audience — a culmination of two months of hard work, really trying to flesh out the story in a different way."

Matt Shingledecker and Arianda Fernandez
photo by Krissie Fullerton

Roger's best friend, the camcord-wielding Mark, who documents the tenement turmoil of his pals, is a perfect fit for Adam Chanler-Berat, in the actor's view. "We have a lot in common. What I most admire about him is the tremendous love he has for his friends. They are his family, and I admire his devotion to them.

"The cast is always inspiring each other, encouraging each other, testing each other. It's a great checks-and-balances, all of us. No egos. We're all just here for the work."

Angel, who famously becomes one during the course of the play, is the show's Tony-winning role. Wilson Jermaine Heredia created the part, and MJ Rodriguez honors it for the revival. The moment he finds most moving is one he has, posthumously, off-stage when he is musically eulogized by his friends. Nicholas Christopher,who plays his surviving partner, Collins, "has this beautiful voice that breaks my heart. It gives me somewhere to go every night."

Rodriguez, very much the team-player, grooves to the ensemble acting going on. "It's like you are a real part of this huge, momentous wave that is sweeping the world. Every night, every second's different. It's an amazing thing to be a part of right now."

The cat in the black-and-white cat-in-the-hat at the play's Glass Tavern after-party was Rent's flashily-attired assistant director, normally known as Billy Porter, who recently was a brilliant Belize for director Greif in Angels in America. "Michael didn't actually think of me — I actually called him and asked," the actor was quick to confess without the hint of an apology. "Sometimes you have to be pro-active about what you want. I called him on the phone and said, 'This is what I want. Can you help me?' He was very into the idea. For me, it was really about learning the ropes in this major arena of New York. I've directed a lot out of town, but I've never directed something this big. So it was like watching somebody who has been doing it for so many years and just sorta negotiating. It's better than any sort of graduate school. I'm not giving up acting. I'm just expanding my landscape." Kevin McCollum, who co-produced the revival (as well as the original) with Jeffrey Seller and Allan S. Gordon, was quick to defend the show's physical downsizing. "What I like about this production is that, number one, we fill the stage. Number two, in a bohemian existence, you are on top of each other, so I think it helps the story. It gives it more of a sense of urgency. What Michael did was to take a show that was such a huge hit and say, 'But I want to look at it again.' I don't think any show has done that. And that's what art should do. It should constantly push the boundaries, exploring in different generations."

He was particularly happy that Rent was "back home" again. "This is the quintessential New York story. New York is a place where young people can come and build a family through their artistic voice. That was what Jonathan was writing.

"I remember the day Jonathan died. Jeffrey and I were walking around Bryant Park like zombies. 'How could this have happened?' We didn't know what Rent would be, if it's going to work or not, but we wanted to make as many people as possible remember who Jonathan Larson was. This production continues that message."

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