How do you measure a year in the life? How about…love?
FOX’s “RENT: Live” finally premiered on January 27th after months of hype and anxious expectations from fans of the musical. With the hit-or-miss nature of live televised musicals, I pass no judgment until each premiere. That being said, as a longtime fan of “RENT,” I found the “live” televised production to be somewhat of a mixed bag. On top of showing mostly pre-recorded footage due to a foot injury from Brennin Hunt (the cast’s Roger), the entire broadcast was flawed, but not entirely hopeless.
With contemporary musicals that have fanbases as large as “RENT,” any post-Original Broadway Cast roster will be unfairly compared. The cast for this production is by no means untalented, but as a whole is unfortunately inconsistent. The roster seems better imagined than implemented. Some cast members such as Tinashe (as the club dancer Mimi Marquez) and Valentina (as the street percussionist and fashionista Angel Dumott Schunard) have commendable stage presence. They both look fierce in their respective solo numbers of “Out Tonight” and “Today 4 U, Tomorrow 4 Me.” Their vocals, on the other hand, are generally a poor fit for this show. While I don’t see a future for Valentina in singing, Tinashe’s vocals are best heard in her signature R&B style and not rock musicals. Luckily, Tinashe’s singing improves in the second act, as heard in “Without You” and the end of “Goodbye Love.”
The saviors of this cast are unsurprisingly the ones with more musical theater experience. Brandon Victor Dixon, who stole the show as Judas in last year’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live” for NBC, gives an impressive, tenor-voiced Tom Collins. It is a welcome change from the usual baritones tackling the role. Dixon’s riffs and spectacularly sustained high notes make the heartbreaking “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” only more thrilling, and the lower notes never sound forced or gravelly. Elsewhere, Vanessa Hudgens shines as the performance artist Maureen Johnson. Although best known for doing the “High School Musical” series, her stints playing Gigi on Broadway and Rizzo in “Grease: Live” three years ago have clearly paid off. Hudgens nails the vocal prowess needed for “Take Me or Leave Me,” as well as the over-the-top exuberance for “Over the Moon.” Another Disney Channel alum, Jordan Fisher, has just the right blend of charm and quirk to make him one of my favorite Mark Cohens that I have seen.
Further adequate performances come from Kiersey Clemons as the lawyer Joanne Jefferson and R&B singer Mario as the yuppie landlord Benny Coffin III. Clemons immerses herself in the “classy, yet sassy” dry humor that makes her character so memorable. She does not always have solid high notes, but Clemons carries herself with dignity and comedic flair. These traits are especially present in the dialogue throughout “Tango: Maureen.” Similarly, Mario gives a surprisingly convincing landlord and is careful not to overwhelm with too many vocal gymnastics.
Finally, we have former X Factor contestant Brennin Hunt as Roger Davis. His performance as the singer-songwriter is a slow burn. In spite of his foot injury and pitchy vocals through the first act, he redeems himself in his heartrending rendition of “Your Eyes” towards the finale.
Despite shortcomings from certain lead cast members, I have to give the ensemble their props. I love the background dancers’ aggressive choreography in numbers such as “Rent” and sensual energy in “Tango: Maureen.” Songs such as “Will I?,” which is about fear of dying a so-called undignified death from AIDS, rarely leave a dry eye in the audience. The ensemble seriously delivered the emotion not just in “Will I?”, but also in the musical’s most famous number, the Act II opener “Seasons of Love.” I always love a great featured soloist for this song, and who better to tackle those ending riffs than “Waitress” and “The Greatest Showman” star Keala Settle! Settle gracefully handles the soul and stamina needed for this song, and is a total gem in her brief appearances onstage. The ensemble’s closing rendition of “Seasons of Love” featured the Original Broadway Cast, and was a fitting, surreal finish to the broadcast.
From a technical standpoint, the warehouse-like set for the live production is absolutely remarkable. Complete with brick walls and metal bars, it perfectly resembles the rough, Bohemian vibe of Manhattan’s Alphabet City. I loved seeing the audience become involved towards the end of the broadcast. Crowd-surfing during “What You Own” and the full-house camera angles during “Finale B” helped keep momentum high.
While the novelty of a live televised musical intrigues me, there are of course aspects that are bound to go wrong. Like NBC’s “Hairspray Live!” from 2016, “RENT: Live” was not immune to issues with volume and sound mixing. Some performers’ microphone feeds dropped out and made some scenes super distracting, particularly for Tinashe in “Out Tonight” and “La Vie Boheme.” Another questionable aspect for me is which words get censored. I understand that network television is obviously going to change a few obscenities. That being said, why are some words and phrases such as “kink club,” “goddamn,” and “dildo” censored, but not “S&M,” “masturbation,” or “dyke”? It just does not add up.
Without a doubt, this production has obstacles and imperfections. However, it does not diminish the cultural significance that Jonathan Larson’s work continues to have. Regardless of how even the purest “RENT” fans feel about the FOX broadcast, this presentation is not totally in vain. “RENT” is still relevant in the movement for LGBT+ rights and finding a cure for HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, it was a great choice of a show to do: contemporary, well-known, and containing the inspiring message of “no day but today.” NBC and FOX take serious risks by putting on live musicals, and I hope they continue to happen so that younger people see musical theatre’s broadening appeal. I hope that Larson’s influence in telling realistic musical stories inspires future generations of thespians to discover their creative voices.