If you are of the generation that grew up to Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” the 1996 counterculture rock opera about love, loss and politics based on Puccini’s “La Bohème,” then you’re ready for its revival. It taught you about sexuality, spirituality, AIDS, and to the relief of hesitant American parents, the reality of independence.
It’s time to reflect.
MusicalFare revisits Larson’s opus with a new approach at what is now a period piece. It hits a few stylistic notes eloquently, and it frames our attention on characters’ intimacy the way that a Broadway-style house has always dwarfed, but it misses many opportunities to re-appropriate Larson’s political statements for today’s climate.
Director Randy Kramer, who is prone to reconceptualizing familiar, seemingly fixed musicals, has never quite understood the power in that freedom. His vision for “Cabaret” two seasons ago put instruments in his performers’ hands (a once innovative, now tiring trend), without reason or accountability; a daring “concept” missing a dramaturgical point. Director Chris Kelly’s similar treatment to “Oliver!,” in 2011, did the opposite, taking us so far away from Dickensian England that the journey back was our reward.
Kramer crafts smart, evocative moments where it matters, but misses the potential afforded to him when choosing to go off book. “Rent” is another casualty.
Larson’s musical is certainly about downtown Manhattan in the mid-’90s, but no more than Puccini’s opera was about Paris in the 1830s. Kramer didn’t have to reassign its time or location, but he could have landed distinct conceptual opportunities had he chosen to dismember the show more, putting it back together with different glue.
Music director Theresa Quinn has rearranged the electric garage band score as a softer, textured, pedestrian chamber musical. The inclusion of violin, cello, Latin percussion, and, regrettably, trumpet, brings moments of poignancy and clarity, if not confusion. But it dilutes the rocky angst that the electric versions organically conveyed. These downtown Bohemian kids are angry and poor, burning their original screenplays and gig posters for heat; a cello, however beautifully played (by actress Amy Jakiel), just isn’t going to cut it.
Sometimes it works. “Without You,” led by Key Kerimian as the druggie drifter Mimi, is exquisite. Kerimian takes on Mimi’s desperate ballad with Lady Gagaesque rasp, clawing through her loneliness with vigor and torment. This is a highlight of musical, dramatic and technical strength, from Chris Cavanagh’s lighting to the musical ensemble’s tenderness.
Steve Copps, as Mimi’s equally depressive other half, Roger, leads a similar synergy with his “One Song Glory,” again aided with thought and context by Cavanagh’s and Quinn’s handy work. The number, about songwriter Roger trying to find his one great song, solves itself.
It is the best part of Copps’ otherwise disappointing performance. Roger is a difficult role, in that he doesn’t offer us much beyond sulking and other depressed states. Though not fully fleshed out on the page, Copps doesn’t deliver the hurt, scarred soul of this songwriter, who cannot emote in the real world the way he can on his guitar. When his song does finally come to him, we’re not as proud of him the way he needs us to be, as beautifully sung and earnestly attempted as it is.
Our two strongest assets are John Kaczorowski, as filmmaker Mark, Roger’s roommate and best friend, and Ben Puglisi as Tom Collins, their philosopher/hacker/anarchist friend. Kaczorowski provides the most consistent, thorough characterization of the cast, full of nuance and notes. Puglisi’s soulful Collins is endearing at its high points and harrowing at its low points. Each steals the show, with contrasting intensities.
Marc Sacco, in the plum role of Angel, the drag queen performer who serves as her friends’ moral and spiritual compass, is the weakest of the central roles. It’s a part Sacco is ideal for, a sentimental, sarcastic sass who can interchangeably turn a laugh into a tear with just one look. But he doesn’t glow with Angel’s unconditional warmth.
Love may be what’s missing from the big picture here. Kramer and his cast certainly feel nostalgia for this seminal theatrical property, but it could have gone farther, in directions unimagined as of yet, had there been a sharper focus on heart. Larson’s sentiment that throughout any struggle, any war, any strife, love always has and always will prevail, is more central to the show’s vision than any piece of topical zeitgeist.
It’s not about re-creating or fighting opposition, as Mark reminds us at the closing of Act One. It’s about creation.
Two and 1/2 stars
When: Through March 3
Where: MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St., Amherst
Info: www.musicalfare.com, 839-8540