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Review: Rent (About Face Theatre and American Theater Company)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat

Review: Rent (About Face Theatre and American Theater Company)   

Written by Jonathan Larson  
Directed by David Cromer 
American Theater Co., 1909 W. Byron (map)
thru June 9  |  tickets: $45-$50   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
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Deconstruction done right


Review: Rent (About Face Theatre and American Theater Company)


About Face Theatre and American Theatre Company presents



Review by Lauren Whalen 

For me, Rent resonates with time and experience. “La Vie Boheme” is the life I’ve chosen as an adult, and the reprise of “I’ll Cover You” took on a deeper meaning when a close friend unexpectedly lost his father.  Director David Cromer’s new production of the late Jonathan Larson’s opus – taking it from Broadway spectacle to bare-bones emotion – further hammers home the fragility of life and the raw essentiality of contact. Though it sometimes misses the mark, Cromer’s Rent deeply understands the heart of its story and why it still needs to be told.

Review: Rent (About Face Theatre and American Theater Company)
Originally a riff on Puccini’s La Boheme, Rent took a more personal turn for Larson. Like the composer and his friends, the impoverished artist characters lived in New York City tenements at the height of the late 80’s economic downturn – and several had HIV/AIDS, which at the time was akin to a death sentence. The day before its off-Broadway opening, Rent took a tragic turn when 35-year-old Larson died suddenly of an undiagnosed aortic dissection. Since then, the show has become a worldwide phenomenon – and maybe that’s the problem. With countless Broadway and off-Broadway runs, tours and a 2005 film adaptation, Rent permeated pop culture in a way Larson may have never dreamed. In many ways, the show’s quiet, hopeful message has given way to Technicolor splendor and Disneyfied poverty, and directors, designers and actors are afraid to make changes. Surely fans will riot if “La Vie Boheme” isn’t exactly the way they remember!

Acclaimed director Cromer’s interpretation is a deconstruction: stripping away elaborate dance moves and impeccable “poverty chic” in favor of Rent’s deplorable setting, desperate characters and evocative themes. Successful across the board, this decision is especially compelling in one of Rent’s best-known numbers. The exuberant Act I finale “La Vie Boheme” is often splashy with jumping on tables, broad gestures and loud voices. In Cromer’s version, the players are sloppily attired and stone cold broke, convening in the Life Café where not everyone knows one another. But in the course of the number, connections are made across tables – people bond over Langston Hughes and S&M, faces lighting up with recognition and new connection. Never has “La Vie Boheme” felt more authentic.

Unfortunately, Cromer’s brilliant direction can’t compensate for Rent’s structural flaws. In truth, the show could have used another rewrite: Act II is at least two songs too long and certain important plot points are rushed. Had Larson survived, Rent most likely would have been rewritten, as is common for a show transitioning from off-Broadway. As it is, Rent is an imperfect masterpiece and Cromer does everything he can to smooth over the considerable bumps. Collette Pollard, who’s done gorgeous work on Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and House Theatre’s Nutcracker, brings her generous eye to detail that is evident in everything from a shabby fold-out couch to a worn flea-market coat rack to the tarnished Christmas tinsel that presides over the action. Each of David Hyman’s costume pieces are tattered and timely, the garb of starving bohemians and the homeless as opposed to clean-cut cartoons. Jessica Redish’s movement-based choreography is naturalistically lovely – only “Santa Fe,” with its dancing homeless people, feels reminiscent of other Rent productions and therefore out of place in this deconstructed interpretation.

Review: Rent (About Face Theatre and American Theater Company)
Rent’s ensemble carries undeniable intelligence and strength. Clearly Cromer knew exactly who he wanted to cast – and that’s mostly wonderful, except when their singing isn’t quite up to par. Alan Schmuckler’s filmmaker Mark is delightfully nebbish and observant, bonding through tango with rigid but empathetic lawyer Joanne (Lili-Anne Brown). Derrick Trumbly brings a soulful dreaminess to AIDS-afflicted rocker Roger, and Alex Agard plays up the subtle affection of professor/anarchist Tom Collins. Rather than milking performance artist Maureen Johnson for comic relief – as many actresses do – Aileen May’s energy is genuine: Maureen really believes that dressing as a cow will make a difference. If only May’s crackling energy and wit, so prevalent in her solo “Over the Moon”, held steady through the rest of the show. The most dynamic performance in Rent belongs to Esteban Andres Cruz: his cross-dressing drummer Angel Dumott Schunard challenges audience members with in-your-face androgyny but softens with a smile and a sweet, sassy word for everyone. Only Grace Gealey’s Mimi is underplayed and lacks true commitment, watering down a character that should pop off the stage.

Perhaps Rent’s most beautiful moment is in its Act II opening. Far from its usual bombastic treatment, “Seasons of Love” feels positively prayerlike. The cast kicks off Act II by processing across the stage and savoring every lyric in a way that is soft and haunting, regaining all of its power. My friend, who’s seen Rent over 20 times, commented “I won’t ever listen to ‘Seasons of Love’ the same way again.” Me neither.


Rating: ★★★½



Rent continues through June 17th at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map), with performances Wednesdays thru Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 3pm and 8pm, Sundays 2pm.  Tickets are $45-$50, and are available by phone (773-409-4125) or online at (check for half-price tickets at More information at  (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes 15-minute intermission)

Review: Rent (About Face Theatre and American Theater Company)

All photos by Michael Brosilow 




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