11:22 pm EDT, January 27, 2019

‘Rent: Live’ review: An ambitious attempt that ultimately fell flat

Rent: Live, the latest live musical had all the pieces to make an explosive production, but couldn’t figure out how to make them work to their advantage.

Rent is not Peter Pan, flying off to Neverland on musical adventure with Lost Boys and Christopher Walken. Nor is it Grease with Aaron Tveit’s slick backed hair and Boys II Men singing “Beauty School Dropout.” It’s a musical set in the late ’80s when the AIDS crisis had an unrelenting hold on the communities that gathering in New York City’s neighborhoods. It is not your primetime, gather the kids around the TV and watch the Von Trapp children bid you goodnight.

But it is iconic. The songs, the characters, the setting are a snapshot of two moments. One is the moment it was depicting. The other is the moment it took over the first waves of fandom. In 1996, people were sleeping on the street to get in to see Rent. When the movie came out in 2005 there wasn’t a lunch table full of theater kids not reciting the words by heart.

And so, in 2019, the musical is getting a new audience. As romantic as the idea of the live-musical is – gathering around the television, making snacks, cuddling up with the family – that is likely not the circumstances surrounding the people who are watching these productions. Everyone has a phone (or in some cases a computer) out to watch the show on a second screen. If you’re watching it live, it’s because you want to be a part of the conversation live.

The way we are watching Rent, and all these musicals, are with a second or third screen. And commercials. Will that ruin the emotional arc of the musical, or will they be able to cleverly cut to accommodate that? The news of Brennin Hunt’s injury — a broken ankle during dress rehearsal the night before — also left the network airing the taped version for all but three songs. Some of the tech issues, and audience control moments, might have been solved with a second shot, but the network made due with what they had.

Was Rent: Live bad? No. It just wasn’t great.

Here is our breakdown of Fox’s Rent: Live.

‘Rent: Live’ the production

The sets were, in a word, perfect. I was honestly jealous of the people who were able to be in a pit-like section of the stage. However, live audiences remain a problem for these musicals to address. It boils down to dictating what you need from them, the type of etiquette to display, and then compensating with the talent and sound engineering to accommodate that. This is in a large warehouse. The actors are not belting during “You’ll See.” But the audience is screaming like they are at a Beyoncé concert.

Take “Today 4 You” for starters. You could barely hear Valentina’s opening bars. There is a careful balance between crafting the environment that an audience gives to a performance and creating just a sound ruckus.

This particular musical is sung through, making it especially easy to lose dialogue when Roger swings around the table and the audience finds him especially endearing. Look, I’ve bitten my fair share of lips watching performances in a theater. There is a time and place for applause and screaming, typically when people are not relaying information pivotal to the plot.

That said, the 360-degree immersive experience for the audience was quite impressive. The set was all encompassing, connected by scaffolding, runways, and glass walls. It was all at once open and entirely intimate. The camera work, especially during “Will I” as the entire set was explored, the audience participated, hit the notes that this show needs to while showing off the work of Jason Sherwood, the production designer.

Jordan Fisher has charmed me in the worst ways. With one smile pointed at Kiersey Clemons’ Joanne during “Tango: Maureen” the nerdy Mark Cohen of days gone by died. Here was someone new, yet at the same time hitting all the familiar notes of the character. It’s a shame that Brennin Hurt did not get to perform again for this event. The three songs he was able to participate in tonight were great. But that is true of his entire performance. I think that Brennin Hurt embodied Roger. But I’ll always love you, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal.

Vanessa Hudgens’ Maureen melted our faces with “Over the Moon,” Keala Settle as the featured soloist in “Seasons of Love” was spectacular, there is no shortage of talent spread across the stage. Brandon Victor Dixon’s Judas was one of the many highlights of Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert. And he continues to destroy us with his vocally and emotionally charged “I’ll Cover You (Reprise).”

What aided these performances were the moments where each character was given the ability to lean into the song. Whether that was belting a note or simply singing for more than a minute. The dialogue bits, the moments where too many people were moving and trying to sing, were where everything seemed to unravel. Rent is a marathon. Even with commercial breaks, it’s not going to let up on the stamina required to carry the numbers.

Mario’s Benny is the character I was most surprised by. On the one hand, age and distance from my original obsession with the show has changed my perception of the character. Is he really the bad guy here? Benny just wants them to work! His dog was murdered! He’s taking away the artist community, those who want to live and create and change the world. On the other hand, his mid-show actions (giving them back the apartment as long as it’s on film) is not exactly the best look on him. By the end of “Halloween” his redemption in the eyes of Collins and Mark didn’t land. He paid his way back into their lives, but he’s already ostracized. Is he changed? Will this moment ever actually land?

But that question was too big for this production to answer. Instead it gave us three hours of forgettable costumes, some impressive songs, and some striking lyric omissions (I didn’t spend hours memorizing the food order in “La Vie Bohème” for nothing!).

What were your favorite moments?

‘Rent: Live’ song ranking

Rent Live Fox Review

The performances definitely picked up in the second half of the production. Singing live was a struggle in parts (audience drowning out entire songs, voices not delivering the power at the right moments). But when the vocals soared, they really went for it. Vanessa Hudgens and Kiersey Clemons’ “Take Me or Leave Me” was a dynamite duet, “Without You” lived up to the version I’ve played so many times from the cast album.

“Contact” showed off Sonya Tayeh’s choreography while hitting the emotional punch it needed to in the moment where the show traditionally keeps taking you lower, not letting you come up for air before the finale.

Speaking of finales, I’ll be watching the original Broadway cast’s performance many, many times in the days to come. It was a special moment that helped close out the show after a moving tribute to the show’s creator Jonathan Larson.

  1. The original Broadway cast singing “Seasons of Love”
  2. “Will I”
  3. “Seasons of Love”
  4. “Take Me or Leave Me”
  5. “Without You”
  6. “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)”
  7. “Finale B”
  8. “Over the Moon”
  9. “La Vie Bohème B”
  10. “Tango: Maureen”
  11. “Rent”
  12. “I Should Tell You”
  13. “One Song Glory”
  14. “Your Eyes”
  15. “Santa Fe”
  16. “La Vie Bohème”
  17. “You’ll See”
  18. “Christmas Bells”
  19. “Halloween”
  20. “Light My Candle”
  21. “Life Support”
  22. “Contact”
  23. “Finale”
  24. “Goodbye Love”
  25. “We’re Okay”
  26. “What You Own”
  27. “Happy New Year”
  28. “I’ll Cover You”
  29. “Today 4 You”

Watch the ‘Rent: Live’ concert-style performances

Rent: Live released a few of the concert-style performances that took place for the audience gathered for the network’s mostly scrapped big night.

And here is the live original Broadway cast reunion that did air during the broadcast.

Production note (previously reported January 27, 5:47 p.m.)
Rent: Live will go on as planned tonight, following one of leading men Brennin Hunt’s ankle injury. During the dress rehearsal taping, just before the final number, the production’s Roger, Brennin Hunt, suffered an ankle injury, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Hunt worked his way back on stage, but was forced to sit during the finale.

It is unclear how much of the taped performance will be used during the live production, but if you see Roger scaling the scaffolding, you can bet you are watching Saturday’s rehearsal. Luckily, there was an audience and the rehearsal was “all out” in case a situation like this arose.

The production does not have understudies. While this and other network productions tout headliners stepping into these roles, so do Broadway performances. Mishaps happen. A Tony award nominee can tear their ACL three days before opening night. Maybe this will be the catalyst to incorporate understudies into future productions.

Roger has a rather large role in Rent, and hopefully this will not be too much of a distraction from the overall event. Either way, the show is going on and we’ll be here with all the commentary when the cast takes their final bow.

What did you think of ‘Rent: Live’ on Fox?

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