What happens when you present “Rent” as a standard piece of musical theater rather than the “rock opera” its late creator Jonathan Larson intended?
In the case of Porchlight Music Theatre, it means that the rock elements and signature segments of the show come off muted, draggy and palpably bereft of momentum.
When Roger sings “One Song Glory” after having fiddled around tuning his guitar, this angst anthem needs to be a desperate, shrieking cry to make a mark before fading away. It is not a cabaret song.
Likewise, the big ensemble numbers “Rent” and the Act I finale “La Vie Bohème” are defiant, in-your-face, take-no-prisoners communal rebellions, not suburban garden hootenannies.
What does that leave us? The one show-stopping moment in this production is Tom Collins (Eric Lewis) wailing a funeral eulogy gospel style in the reprise of “I’ll Cover You.” The syncopation and free-phrasing perfectly capture the moment and the chorus intensifies as if the character being remembered was a life that mattered.
Another highlight is Maureen (Lucy Godinez) doing her “Over the Moon” soliloquy with the life-and-death seriousness that makes it delightfully over the top.
But “Rent” is, above all, about relationships and those, alas, are in short supply here. The characters are detached and indifferent, going through the motions. That feeling is enhanced by director Adrian Abel Azevedo often presenting the action on a sheet that acts as a video screen that dominates and sometimes even covers the actual action in key moments.
Given a global pandemic, “Rent” still has much to say to a culture emerging from recovery. There are archetype analogies of HIV to COVID that can be powerful and relevant with a strong production. Would that this were it.
“Rent” at Porchlight Music Theatre, Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn, porchlightmusictheatre.org. Extended through December 11.