KIND OF A DRAG Despite some odd choices and a few misfires in the production, this cast have the impressive vocal pipes to deliver what the show demands.
Every director who helms Rent must struggle in the shadow of the original production: the show's composer died unexpectedly on the night of the dress rehearsal, propelling the piece to cult status, and the cast to Broadway and fame. Moreover, versions of the long-running Broadway hit have made multiple tours since the original 1996 production. Most interpretations don't dare alter the original lest they alienate all those fans who by this point have seen the show several times.
New Rep's staging (at the Charles Mosesian Theater through September 25) does not stray far from the Rent that composer/playwright Jonathan Larson's fans know and love. Aside from the cast being a bit more Caucasian than the script requests, most of these actors' interpretations follow closely in the footsteps of the originals.
And, in case you've been under a rock since 1996: Rent recasts Puccini's La bohème in early-'90s New York City; AIDS is the new tuberculosis, and grunge is the new opera. The young bohemian artists in Larson's retelling have become archetypes in their own right, not unlike Puccini's characters.
One significant departure in director Benjamin Evett's interpretation involves Nick Sulfaro's portrayal of Angel — ordinarily the most hyperactive, flashy character of the show. In "traditional" productions of Rent, Angel is initially presented as a man who later appears as a flamboyant drag queen. Here Angel enters first as a woman. A novice might not even realize that Angel's original character was ever intended to be a man in drag. And so Mark's reference to tourists being frightened of Angel ("they had never seen a drag queen before") makes little sense. Aside from "Today 4 U" — Angel's most high-energy number, in which he famously wears red-and-white Mrs. Claus furs — Angel's outfits and antics in the New Rep staging, compared to your average Rent, have been scaled back (ordinarily, Angel wears that Mrs. Claus jacket for most of the rest of the show). Without loud and proud sparkles, and with Sufaro's subdued performance, Angel seems like just another quietly angsty artist, and Rent hardly needs another one of those.
Among the cast members, Aimee Doherty carries the flag of humor and liveliness as the drama queen performance artist Maureen. Unfortunately, Maureen doesn't show up until two-thirds of the way through the first act, but Doherty infuses energy into the show as soon as she steps on stage, stealing scenes with her every hip thrust, quip, and ponytail flip. Maureen and her new girlfriend Joanne (Robin Long) have a relationship thick with catty chemistry, and the two actresses' soaring mezzos are the show's best voices, along with John Ambrosino's Mark, whose clean tenor nails every one of Larson's complicated melodic lines. Also impressive was Andrew Oberstein, a vocal and theatrical ringer as AIDS group leader Paul and in a handful of other bit parts.