Friday, February 27, 2009

Over The LA Moon (RENT Comes To The Pantages)...

In tick, Tick...BOOM! Jonathan Larson wrote that he wanted "to sit down, right now, at [his] piano and write a song that people will listen to and remember and do the same thing every morning for the rest of [his] life." And Larson was blessed enough to be able to do so-- even if it wasn't really paying the bills for the most of his professional career-- until his life was cut tragically short on January 25 1996. His words then should not be taken lightly: they should be motto to live by because life is too short to spend so much time and energy on something you don't completely love to do.

In a similar fashion, I could take part in the performance of Larson's most famous work, the 1996 Tony Award winning take on La Boheme: RENT, everyday for the rest of my life and never get bored or look for something "better." I have written countless times before about what the show has meant to me, but last night truly brought a whole new level to my devotion to the show. Last night was the touring production of RENT's opening night at the Pantages in Hollywood-- a touring production that stars none other than Larson's own hand-picked Roger and Mark, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, as well as Broadway's final Angel, Justin Johnston, and final Collins, Michael McElroy (though original "Seasons of Love" powerhouse soloist Gwen Stewart is listed on the touring cast sheet, sadly she did not make it to opening night in LA).

The Pantages, though still a part of the Nederlander Group, is not as majestic as the just-off-Broadway-enough-to-be-considered-Bohemian New York stage that was RENT's home for a dozen years, but the theater was radiating like it never had before last night, aglow with the excitement and dreams of long-time RENTheads as well as a handful who were seeing the show for the first time. I spied at least a couple of kids in the audience, too-- proudly wearing their RENT buttons and hoping to catch a glimpse of these now-larger-than-life personas. No discredit to the many others who have assumed the roles for the last thirteen years (Manley Pope, you especially will always be in my heart!), but the sheer power of Pascal and Rapp resuming those that made them famous allowed Larson's message to echo so much deeper than ever before.

It was somewhat unreal to see just how big Pascal, Rapp, and RENT in general have blown up commercially in recent years, too. When the play first debuted, won the Tony, and hit the cover of Newsweek, it solidified its place in pop culture history, but it is doubtful anyone expected that so many years later it would be right back at the center of things again. The audience of the Pantages was more anticipatory than any one I have ever sat in before (and I have seen the show three previous times at the Pantages and eight times on Broadway); you could barely hear the knocking on "the door" because of how loudly the crowd was catcalling for the girl they had not yet even met. To make up for any lines or notes that might have gotten swallowed by the audience's enthusiastic reaction, though, this particular touring cast of RENT took some liberties-- with the staging as well as certain specific lines of dialogue. But because it was Pascal and Rapp at the helm, we forgive them that, sort of how parents might forgive their children's newly developed bad habits when home from college for a holiday break. We were just so glad to have them back!

As Mark, the story's sensitive narrator, Rapp is still the anchor of RENT, and though his smile today is not nearly as wide-eyed as it must have been all of those years ago when he first took the stage, his enthusiasm is still that of a young man truly in love with the role he is tackling. To him, RENT is not merely a job but a way of life, and his energy rolls over the audience in waves from the very first moments he bounces out onto the stage. He puts everything he has into every line, every note, every look, delivering an amazingly focused, aware performance. Rapp has as much invested as his legions of fans.

Pascal, on the other hand, brings a natural ease to Roger that has been missed in recent years of the touring and Broadway casts alike. One would never know Pascal just had to sit out the Detroit tour dates due to a herniated disc by his performance last night; his demeanor is calm, quiet, and controlled-- dialing down the frenetic nature one might expect from a character who is a recovering addict-- creating a unique and poignant dichotomy with Lexi Lawson's Mimi. Whenever Pascal opens his mouth to sing, the notes pour out silky and smooth, effortlessly, and the audience falls in love with his tortured soul all over again.

Something must be said, too, for how wonderfully Pascal and Rapp blend with the newer members of the cast. In ensemble numbers, they never overshadowed, and the others never kow-towed to their lead: they were a family, just as Larson always intended.

Though RENT is chock full of beautiful duets, none epitomize Larson's greatest struggle but also his greatest passion more than "What You Own." And similarly nothing can compare to watching Pascal and Rapp harmonize its message. Perhaps I was greatly influenced by the fact that I gave my notice at "the corporation" recently, but when Rapp yelled "I quit" into the payphone and then spun on his heel to break directly into the chorus, I pumped my fist in the air with admiration and understanding. Times may be tough right now, but tomorrow is not guaranteed, so we must make sure that whatever we do, it is something about which we can feel good when we wake up every morning. We must never feel any shame for our art or our choices; they are what defines our lives after all. And if Larson and RENT have taught us anything, it is that life is to be celebrated.

RENT will be at the Pantages through March 8. Tickets might still be available through the Nederlander Group's box office or Ticketmaster.

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