Fox’s cable TV production of the musical, Rent, titled Rent Live, had a major surprise. Because Bennin Hunt, who played main character Roger, had broken his foot during the dress rehearsal the night before, Fox chose to broadcast the footage from that rehearsal, switching to Sunday night’s performance for the last fifteen minutes. As can be imagined, viewers reacted strongly. Despite onscreen captions at the beginning and the end, as well as a message from the cast before the first commercial break, it was difficult to tell what was pre-recorded and what was live.
Still, the production, directed by Michael Greif and Alex Rudzinkski, and adapted from Jonathan Larson’s book by Kristoffer Diaz, is powerfully moving. It’s easy to see how Hunt could have injured himself, as the show is incredibly physical right from the start, with the cast leaping onto tables and furniture. During “La Vie Bohème” they dance on the tables, as the stage moves on a turntable. Tinashe, playing Mimi, struts and glides through the rafters above in “Out Tonight,” twisting through the spaces.
Hunt and Tinashe are excellent as Roger and Mimi, damaged people trying to love each other. She continually reaches out to him, holding him, while he pulls away. His solo “One Song Glory” is a heartrending account of wasted opportunity. Her solo “Without You” is heartbreaking in her need for love.
Jordan Fisher plays Mark with a quiet strength, as he narrates the life of his bohemian friends. He shines in “Tango Maureen” with Kiersey Clemons as Joanne, the girlfriend of his ex-girlfriend Maureen (Vanessa Hudgens), an awkward first meeting becoming funnier as he relates Maureen’s quirks. In a hilarious moment, Clemons takes the lead as they prepare to dance, moving Fisher’s arms to his surprise. At song’s end, Fisher says “I feel great” while Clemons, surprised at how well he knows Maureen, replies “I feel queasy.”
Clemons plays Joanne with a fierce strength and determination. In “We’re Okay” juggling several people at once on multiple phones, she reassures herself that her relationship with Maureen is good. Hudgens gives Maureen a sensuality and flightiness. Her one-woman show “Over the Moon” is a hilarious send up of performance art, made even funnier by her absolutely serious performance. She crawls on the floor, shouts nonsense, even floats above the stage. In “Take Me or Leave Me” Clemons and Hudgens show their ferocity and their refusal to change,
pushing and pulling each other on the bed.
Valentina plays Angel as a powerhouse. She bursts on the stage in “Today 4 U” twirling and leaping around in joy. She can also do more romantic songs, like “I’ll Cover You,” with love in her voice. Her death is hallucinatory, as she tries to grasp Tom (Brandon Victor Dixon) but is pulled away by dancers. Finally, holding Tom’s hand, she slowly glides down onto the bed.
The set, decorated by John Sparano, has an industrial feel, with the ground stage looking like a warehouse, while the upper level is composed of rafters and gullies. It captures the 90s with camcorders, clunky cordless phones, answering machines, and even a payphone. There are reminders of the AIDS epidemic, a poster with “Silence =Death” on the wall. During an emotional scene between Roger and Mimi, an alarm goes off; Mimi breaks away, saying “AZT break.”
Directors Michael Greif and Alex Rudzinski use the combination of theater and television to great effect. During “La Vie Bohème,” an overhead camera shows Mark sliding down the table. After Mimi runs out to meet with her dealer, she sits on a park bench looking forlorn, the music getting darker, right before a commercial break.
The audience is visible. They cheer and clap along to “Today 4 U.” They hold candles during “Seasons of Love,” and at the end, the camera pans across. Fisher and Hunt frequently run along the edge of the stage, grasping audience members’ hands. The cast and crew do justice to Rent, giving viewers who haven’t seen the show before a chance to see it, and perhaps inspiring them to see a live stage production.
Charles Green is a writer based in Annapolis, Maryland.