REVIEW: Fox’s “Rent: Live”

rent liveRent. It’s a musical that many people have heard of. It’s a musical that many either passionately love or passionately hate. It’s a musical that had a monumental impact on the Broadway musical. It’s also the newest musical to be adapted for TV as a live broadcast. And, I’ll be honest, when I heard that Fox was gonna do Rent as their next live musical, I didn’t think it was a great idea. Rent isn’t exactly network-TV friendly; it’s filled with lots of explicit language and adult themes and stuff you can’t do or say or network TV, so I assumed it would likely be censored to hell and back in order to make it comply with the standards and practices of Fox. With all that being said, how’d the producers and cast of Rent: Live do? Well, it’s a mixed bag.

A re-imagining of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” and set in New York City’s gritty East Village, “Rent” tells the unforgettable story of seven artists struggling to follow their dreams during a time of great social and political turmoil. Winner of four Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize, writer/composer Jonathan Larson’s tour de force continues to offer an inspiring message of hope and friendship.

The star-studded cast includes actress Kiersey Clemons (Joanne Jefferson), Emmy nominee and Tony Award winner Brandon Victor Dixon (Tom Collins), singer/songwriter Jordan Fisher (Mark Cohen), actress and singer Vanessa Hudgens (Maureen Johnson), newcomer and singer/songwriter Brennin Hunt (Roger Davis), R&B/Pop superstar Mario (Benjamin Coffin III), recording artist Tinashe (Mimi Marquez) and performer Valentina (Angel Dumont Schunard). Additionally, Keala Settle will perform the iconic solo from “Seasons of Love” and join the ensemble in the live musical.

rent-03So, I am gonna have to try and be as objective as possible in this review; the simple reason being that I have quite a few issues with Rent as a musical. I was quite a big fan of it as a teenager, as I’m sure many others were, but as I got older, I found more and more problems with Rent as a cohesive musical. The music, composed by Jonathan Larson, is excellent and I like it quite a bit – it’s the main reason I usually think positively of Rent even though I don’t think it’s a very good musical. It did a lot to usher in a new wave of music into mainstream musicals. The book, also written by Larson, however, is not so good. Its plot is a mess and its characterization is even messier; it’s about eight people – all of whom are just about equally unlikable – dealing with their lives in poverty-stricken New York City during the height of the AIDS crisis – only, it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to say about poverty or the AIDS crisis. There are a number of problems with the script – including the framing of Roger’s (a recovering drug addict) desire to not hang out with Mimi (a current drug addict) as an example of him not living life to its fullest, Mark being a terrible person, Maureen being the stereotypical promiscuous bisexual, etc. It’s a script that really could have used some rewrites between its original Off-Broadway production and its debut on Broadway – and likely would have gotten those rewrites, too, had Jonathan Larson not tragically passed away prior to its Off-Broadway debut. So, with that said, I’m not here to judge Rent: Live based on the script of the original musical; this production is pretty much stuck with what it’s been given. But I will judge it on whether or not it’s a good production of the musical.

rent-04So, in a surprising turn of events, the majority of Rent: Live was actually footage from last night’s dress rehearsal. Last night, somewhere during or just after “What You Own”, Brennin Hunt, the actor who plays Roger, broke his ankle on stage, preventing the show from being performed live tonight as originally planned. So, they aired the rehearsal footage up until the point he broke his ankle and then switched to a live version of a slightly reworked version of the final ten minutes, featuring Brennin Hunt onstage with his ankle propped up on a chair. Obviously, this isn’t how the cast and crew of the show would have preferred it be broadcast, but it’s what we got. I give Hunt a whole lot of kudos for performing at all; I broke my ankle last year and the pain is immense, so the fact that he was able to even sing through it tonight at all was impressive. (And, apparently, they performed the whole show live for the in-person audience, just with most of them sitting instead of doing the choreography. So, Brennin Hunt did the whole show from his wheelchair, aside from the final ten minutes.) That being said, the dress rehearsal is, more or less, what would have happened live. The camerawork would mostly have been the same live as it was in the dress rehearsal as, when rehearsing a live broadcast, you also rehearse the camerawork you’re gonna use. So, airing the dress rehearsal was an understandable substitution.

rent-05Unfortunately, the fact that we were watching a dress rehearsal was often very apparent. It’s hard to know how many of those problems would have been ironed out had the show been performed live as originally intended, but I can’t judge something on what might have happened; I can only judge what I saw. So, with the knowledge that most of what we saw was, in fact, a dress rehearsal, let’s talk about Rent: Live. It’s a mess. The show, and many of the arrangements, seemed to be lacking a sense of energy. There were times when the energy was so low that it honestly felt like the actors were bored. This, likely, would have been different had the show been live as the energy is always immediately jacked up when you have to perform a show for real compared to when you’re doing a dress rehearsal. But, still, a final dress rehearsal shouldn’t have felt so energyless. Additionally, some of the performances were very weak. Namely, Valentina as Angel. Valentina was consistently offkey and very wooden with her acting. It’s almost impressive how poor her vocals were. But it’s also a shame since, debatably, Angel is the heart and soul of the show and Valentina had neither of those things. Brennin Hunt wasn’t particularly impressive as Roger in the rehearsal footage; he didn’t seem to bring a lot of emotion to the role and he had very little chemistry with Tinashe’s Mimi. Mario was utterly forgettable as Benny; some of that is due to how infrequently Benny is in the show, but the rest is down to Mario failing to make an impression. Jordan Fisher did a perfectly fine job as Mark; he frequently faded into the background when performing with some of the stronger members of the cast, but he did shine fairly brightly during certain numbers. Both Tinashe and Kiersey Clemons did good jobs as Mimi and Joanne, respectively, bringing a lot of genuine emotion to their performances, as well as some killer vocals. Tinashe, in particular, was perfectly cast as Mimi. She felt like a real nineteen-year-old trying to act older than she is. The real highlights, though, were Vanessa Hudgens as Maureen and Brandon Victor Dixon as Collins. Vanessa Hudgens’ performance was so over-the-top, but it works perfectly for Maureen. Her performance of “Over the Moon” is, perhaps, the best performance of that song I’ve seen. And nobody should be surprised that Brandon Victor Dixon was incredible. I mean, to have any kind of emotion when acting opposite someone as wooden as Valentina was is impressive and his rendition of the reprise of “I’ll Cover You” was genuinely moving. So, the cast was a mixed bag.

rent-06As feared, the show had to be censored a lot. Naturally, all of the explicit language had to be censored and replaced with something else. This was accomplished with mixed results; some of the substitutions worked while others stuck out like a sore thing. There were also some really odd things censored, too, and other things that weren’t censored. For example, in “La Vie Boheme”, “dildos” is changed to “latex”, but they’re allowed to say the ‘f’ slur uncensored. Lots of other lyrics and lines were changed for no apparent reason (“You pretend to create and observe when you really detach from feeling alive” was changed to “You say you know how we feel when you really detach from feeling alive”) and some new monologues were added to “clarify” the plot some, only they were completely unneeded and just felt like they were over explaining things to the audience that could have been understood in more subtle ways. These additions stuck out painfully and were totally unneeded. I still say that if the musical has to be censored and changed this much to air on network TV, it probably shouldn’t be being attempted in the first place.

rent-09As for the visuals of Rent: Live, they, too, were a mixed bag. The costumes were mostly just the original costumes with a few tweaks here and there and they’re not really anything to write home about. The set design was fairly interesting, utilizing a large 360-degree set, with multiple levels and clearly separate spaces for different scenes. The staging of the action within that set was also, largely, interesting. Good use was made of the multiple levels and performing areas and it was nice to get to see certain scenes in a richer visual environment than would normally be possible on stage. For the most part, most of the numbers were staged and choreographed similarly to how they were originally done on Broadway – with the notable exception of “Seasons of Love”. Massive changes were made to the staging of that number, including some new dialogue to tie certain plot threads into the song. This change, while shocking at first, is one that works surprisingly well. It makes it a lot more visually interesting for a filmed version of the song than the standard way of performing it, and the extra dialogue does help tie the plot together a bit more. It was the one change that was pretty nice. Unfortunately, the camerawork largely ruins a lot of the interesting staging. Fox’s live musicals have this habit of keeping their cameras perpetually in motion. They’re just constantly moving and they never stay in one place long enough for you to get a real sense of what’s visually happening. And they frequently made use of long, spinning shots around actors that just made me very dizzy a lot of the time. There were so many times that I just wanted to yell at the cameramen to stay still for a little while! We don’t need the cameras to constantly move in order to convey energy – that’s a job for the actors! Additionally, the audience in this show was about as distracting as the one in Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert. I’m guessing they were told to make as much noise as possible any time an actor went near them; unfortunately, the mics that the actors were wearing pick up pretty much everything and every time an actor went near the audience, the mics just picked up their screaming. The audience was just, overall, very distracting. They screamed at inappropriate moments, breaking the tension of many scenes. There was a mosh pit where some audience members were standing and kind of flailing around, except this was also distracting in numbers such as “What You Own” where that kind of reaction really doesn’t make sense with what’s happening in the song. Speaking of “What You Own”, that number included a bit where Roger and Mark actually surfed the crowd. I suspect it’s here where Brennin Hunt broke his ankle, as when the show returned from the commercial break right after that song, it switched to being truly live. Those last ten minutes or so where the show was live was probably the best part as the show finally felt like it had some urgency and energy. Brennin Hunt was able to perform his role from a table with his leg elevated and the rest of the cast accommodated that fairly well.

rent-10All in all, Rent: Live a bit of a mess. I’m a theatre nerd, so I am the target audience for these live musicals. But this one was rough. It’s simultaneously better than I thought it would be and worse than I thought it would be. Some of its issues were due to unexpected circumstances – like one of the lead actors breaking their ankle, resulting in the producers having to air the majority of the dress rehearsal instead of performing it live (these live musicals really need to start casting understudies). Most of them, though, were due to strange changes to the source material, questionable performances from some of the cast, and really rough camerawork. I understand that what was broadcast was a dress rehearsal, but that’s no excuse for a general lack of energy, wooden acting and weak vocals from some performers, and bad camerawork. Rent is a musical that thrived on being filled with energy and being envelope-pushing. Rent: Live lacked that energy and had to sanitize a lot of its rougher, more interesting parts in order to be appropriate for network TV. I’m surprised at some of what the censors kept in, but shocked at some of the stuff that was censored out. I think most of the cast and crew gave it their best shot, but this really wasn’t a musical fit for network TV, and it shows. It’s unfortunate that Brennin Hunt’s injury was so severe that the dress rehearsal had to be aired, but producers need to plan ahead for these kinds of freak accidents – or they need to make sure their final dress rehearsals are done with the same energy a real performance would be done at. Ultimately, though, Rent: Live was just disappointing. Stellar performances from certain cast members and interesting staging couldn’t make up for the senseless changes, bad camerawork, and wooden performances from other cast members. Just stick with the DVD of the Broadway version.

3 out of 5 wands.

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