At last, the Vexler arrests its downward death spiral in programming with Rent, Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical of love, rebellion, and AIDS, set among the bohemian artists of Manhattan’s East Village. When it premiered in 1994, Larson’s rock-inflected score and countercultural vibe made it an immediate hit among younger theater-goers (especially among the flocking “Rent-heads”); in tandem with Kushner’s Angels in America, Rent exposed the loves — and sadly, deaths — that the Reagan-dominated ’80s dared not name. Indeed, it trumpeted such tales from the rooftops: a paean to hope and honesty in a new millennium. Chris Columbus’s film version managed to turn Larson’s already sentimental piece to goo, a mistake avoided by Ken Frazier’s earthy, energetic production at the Vex. It’s not always perfect, but it rocks.
Now, let’s be frank. As theater, Rent has always been something of a glorious mess, particularly its second act; the chaos of the evening is neatly mirrored in Frazier’s striking set, a quiet riot of crumbling lofts and urban flotsam practically riven (er, rent?) by decay. But damn! What a great score — and delivered by a cast that can, in the main, really sing. (Judging by the bios in the program, various vocal performance programs should be proud.) The plot follows the travails of would-be rocker Roger (Paul Fillingim) and wannabe filmmaker Mark (Walter Songer) as they struggle to pay the rent for their crumbling digs in Alphabet City. Along the way, they encounter compatriots of various stripes and persuasions, including Soulless, Capitalist Benny (Justin Keown) — who has the cheek to demand rent on his lawfully owned and acquired property — and Marxist Firebrand Maureen (Katherine Green), who champions the meek and disenfranchised through the power, it seems, of terrible performance art. (Maureen’s “Over the Moon” was already a confused parody of e.g. Karen Finley in 1994; the number has not aged gracefully.)
But the heart of the show clearly lies in the star-crossed affair of Roger and sickly, pole-dancing waif Mimi (Lindsey Renee Dartsch), a figure lifted straight from Puccini’s La Bohème. (Well, except for the pole-dancing part.) This couple’s not-so-fine romance tiptoes around their HIV status, as well as that status’s obvious repercussions for future stability. In what is clearly the production’s most affecting scene, Larson deftly juxtaposes Roger and Mimi’s heartfelt (if almost trite) ballad of love and loss — “the moon glows /the river flows/ but I die/ without you” — with irreversible death, irreversible loss, unmediated by further poetry or the legerdemain of art. It’s a wrenching moment, staged simply and winningly by Frazier, and lit to fine effect by Cole Cantleberry.
But such introspective moments are rare in this production, which generally favors the exuberant over the tender. “La Vie Bohème” — Larson’s ode to everything the bourgeoisie ain’t — was famously staged in the Broadway production atop a café table; here, the dance spills out over the whole stage, including some vigorous (but alas, only simulated) sodomy. Not all is roses, however: Michelle Pietri’s choreography for the seedy Cat Scratch club strands poor Mimi on a sky-high scaffold, caterwauling vainly in the shadows. The second act’s lesbian slugfest (“Take Me or Leave Me”) is awkwardly confined to a smallish platform, affording these dueling women nowhere to go. And the band — led by William Karl Hedrick — sometimes overpowers the singers, particularly softer voices such as Dartsch’s.
But mostly the cast cannonballs through the musical at rocket speed and with ingratiating performances. The videocam-toting Songer actually makes Mark charming, though he could easily come off as the mid-’90s equivalent of that asshole who keeps YouTubing you on his iPhone. Fillingim is sort of miscast as alt-rocker Roger, but he clearly has a magnificent voice; Dartsch inhabits the part of Mimi but is occasionally — in trendy American Idol lingo — “pitchy.” Rick Sanchez pulls off (and on) some holiday hose as cross-dressing Angel, but strains in his/her upper register; Skudr Jones never falters as Tom Collins, Angel’s lover. A special acknowledgement of Ashley Mitchell as Joanne: Hers is a voice we want to hear again.
The composition of the opening night’s audience is worth mentioning, too: It was fairly brimming with excited young folk whom I don’t often see at other venues in the city, and certainly not at the Vex. Clearly, this theater is at a crossroads. It can either program musicals and plays that people under 50 would actually like to see; or it can fiddle while San Antonio burns. Rent, however, is a good start to cultivating a new generation of “Vex-heads.” •