Sunday, February 8, 2009

Reel Thoughts: La Vie Boheme

I have seen Jonathan Larson’s rock musical Rent live when the Broadway tour came to town, and on the big screen when the film version was released (starring most of the original cast), but I never really loved it until I watched Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway,the new DVD of the emotional final Broadway performance. The cast, staging and film direction finally reveal the heart and soul that was missing from the touring production and silver screen incarnation. Not only do you feel the immediacy of the live production, you also get a rare chance to see much closer views of the actors, making this the definitive record of the hit show.

Rent re-imagines the opera La Boheme set in New York’s gritty East Village in the early ’90s. Poverty, drug addiction, AIDS and a rejection of the Yuppie lifestyle of the ’80s all play parts in the lives of a group of friends, as they spend a year of love and loss.

Mark (Adam Kantor) and Roger (Will Chase) are roommates in an industrial flat with no heat or electricity. Mimi (One Life to Live’s Renee Elise Goldsberry) is a club dancer who lives downstairs and catches Roger’s eye. Tom Collins (Michael McElroy) is the men’s gay friend who meets and falls in love with street entertainer Angel (Justin Johnston); the two share HIV-positive status, as does Roger, who contracted it from his late girlfriend.

Meanwhile, Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen (Eden Espinoza) is a performance artist who left him for Joanne (Tracie Thoms, reprising her role from the film version), a lawyer. The outsider in the bunch is Benny (original cast member Rodney Hicks), who was once Mark and Roger’s friend and roommate, but who is now their unsympathetic landlord. He’s eager to redevelop the neighborhood and displace the homeless and artists who live there.

While the film version had powerful moments and a great cast, this production has all the life and energy that was missing from that earlier attempt. Kantor is a charismatic Mark, the narrator and documenter of his friends’ lives, while Chase gives the downbeat Roger a raw energy that offsets his depression. Goldsberry is a Broadway vet who makes Mimi a wildcat on the prowl in her showstopper “Out Tonight”, but she’s a great actress as well in Mimi’s more-subdued moments.

Espinoza is not quite as good as Idina Menzel, but she rocks Maureen’s performance piece, and Tracie Thoms is excellent again as the frustrated Joanne. McElroy makes Tom a warm and caring lover for Angel, who is played brilliantly by the handsome Johnston. When he performs “Today 4 U”, about his windfall from driving a yapping Akita to take a swan dive, you will finally be able to understand the lyrics and appreciate the black humor (I love dogs! I do! But someone who names an Akita “Evita” has already sentenced the dog to purgatory!).

The show’s standout numbers, like “Seasons of Love”, “Light My Candle” and the title tune, are well staged and sung, and director Michael Warren has a great sense of drama in how he guides his cameras. Most likely, you weren’t there on September 7, 2008 to see this extraordinary performance, capped by most of the original cast members like Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp joining the current cast in the final “Seasons of Love,” but with this DVD and its behind-the-scenes extras, you’ll feel like you were.

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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