The phrase “break a leg” is supposed to give good luck in the theater. Unfortunately, Fox’s “Rent Live!” took this much too literally. After dress rehearsal on Saturday, Jan. 26, Bennin Hunt (playing the role of Marc) injured himself and broke his leg. Thus, “Rent Live!” had to settle with being “Rent Prerecorded,” as the show used footage from the dress rehearsal for a majority of the show. Did this hinder the project? After having watched what was presented, yes it did. However, it also exposes that this production of wasn’t ready to soar.
Jonathan Larson’s iconic musical takes us back to the 90s. A group of friends in New York City all struggle with different forces against them. For Roger (Hunt), a struggling musician, it’s a struggle to get his music to people while also winning over Mimi (Tinashe). Mimi struggles with drugs and constantly hustles for her livelihood. Also, hustling is Joanne (Kiersey Clemons) and her more wayward girlfriend, Maureen (Vanessa Hudgens), who are both going through their own strife as a couple. The most stable relationship belongs to part-time philosophy professor Collins (Brandon Victor Dixon) and drag-queen extraordinaire Angel (Valentina), who has AIDS. Roaming through the group is Mark (Jordan Fisher) a filmmaker and Roger’s roommate. Tying them all together is the rental unit they all live. What is their common struggle? Rent, of course.
“Rent Live!” benefits from the evolution of the live musical over the past few years. The stage sprawls out in many different formations. The actors have ample room to run around and perform the iconic songs. The production design conjures up an off-Broadway performance with big Broadway budgets. There’s a shiny sheen to the carefully applied grunge of this makeshift version of the East Village. The live studio audience fills out various rectangular pockets around the different sets. This allows for the camera to zoom around and capture a variety of different settings at a number of different angles. In this respect, “Rent Live” comes across as one of the more slick versions of the live musical.
Everything after that falls quite a bit short. The musical fails to come alive in this format. It’s unfortunate that one has to judge the program by its dress rehearsal. However, the show never finds a pulse. It limps along with limited energy from song to song. The cast, for the most part, seems to be in practice mode. Hunt and Tinashe share very little chemistry, as their scenes fall flat. Fisher attacks each scene with a wide-eyed enthusiasm; however, he never seems to congeal with the rest of the cast. There’s some excellent chemistry between Dixon and Valentina as Collins and Angel. Dixon follows up his fantastic “Jesus Christ Superstar Live” performance well enough to not embarrass himself. Valentina frequently embarrasses themselves when singing is asked but doesn’t let that dampen their enthusiasm.
At the end of the day, Vanessa Hudgens once again crowns herself Queen of the Live Musical. Between this and “Grease Live,” Hudgens proves that she shines under the live spotlight. The minute her Maureen zooms onto the scene and performs an incredibly hilarious “Over the Moon,” the show perks up. This leads into an energetic “La Vie Boheme,” and for a minute it seems the show has found its rhythm. However, it’s not until Hudgens and Clemons’ “Take Me Or Leave Me” that the show finds its footing again.
As the show ends, the Broadway cast of “Rent” joins the live recording on stage as a tribute to creator Jonathan Larson plays on screen. Larson died hours before the Off-Broadway premiere of “Rent,” which went on to be (as the show heralds) “an international sensation, igniting an emotional and cultural revolution in the process.” “Rent” holds an important place in history, and its impact cannot be understated. Daring to have this conversation about AIDS in the 90s was an incredible feat of bravery. So much of “Rent’s” story still resonates for this reason. However, for reasons both outside of wand within its control, “Rent Live” misses the mark. The earnest nature shines through, but the craftsmanship does not.