The latest installment of live television presentations of Broadway musicals arrived last night as theater fans sat down to take in the 1996 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning RENT by the gone-too-soon Jonathan Larson on FOX TV.
It’s important to note that Brennin Hunt, the actor in the lead role of Roger, broke his ankle near the end of the dress rehearsal on Saturday. With no understudy waiting in the wings, FOX decided to (mostly) air the recorded dress rehearsal.
A cast member shared on Facebook that Sunday evening’s presentation was, indeed, live for the last two segments (from the parents’ calls to the end). The final scene was restaged with Hunt sitting with his foot propped up and the other actors working around him.
For those interested, while the filmed dress rehearsal made up much of the presentation Sunday night, the live audience in the studio were still treated to 'concert' performances during the telecast. FOX has posted several clips from the production as well as the 'concert' performances on YouTube here. Check it out to see what the studio audience saw while we viewed the telecast.
Some say it’s unfair to judge dress rehearsal performances that were never intended to be seen as some performers might have been ‘holding back’ or saving themselves for the real deal Sunday night.
However, I’m not sure how much of that might be true. The dress rehearsal was performed in front of a live audience, and having been an actor on Broadway and in national touring companies since the mid-1980s, I don’t know any folks who hold back in a final dress rehearsal with 1,100 people in attendance.
In any case, the version that landed last night on Fox was still very enjoyable, if a bit uneven.
For those who are new to the piece, RENT is a contemporary riff on the classic opera, La Boheme, adapted to tell the story of a group of struggling artists inhabiting a loft on the lower East Side of Manhattan
It’s amazing that RENT was even on television when you consider much of the play centers on a two queer relationships: one between a black man, Tom Collins (the amazing Brandon Victor Dixon), and a drag queen named Angel (played by RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Valentina); the second pairing the pragmatic Joanne (Kiersey Clemons) with flighty, flirty performance artist, Maureen (Vanessa Hudgens).
Rounding out the principal players are the aforementioned Hunt, whose Roger falls in love with Mimi (R&B singer Tinashe), Jordan Fisher as Mark, and their longtime friend turned landlord, Benny (singer Mario).
Overall, the production won the day with creative staging by co-directors Alex Rudzinski and Michael Greif, excellent lighting and some tremendous performances.
Brandon Victor Dixon’s powerful, gut-punch reprise of “I’ll Cover You” was undeniable. If folks were ‘holding back’ for dress rehearsal, they forgot to tell Dixon. Raw, vocally on point, emotionally open – this is what RENT is about. Easily one of the high points of the production.
Also, “Will I?” was beautifully staged with the cameras following Mark throughout the ‘city’ as layer upon layer of voices cried out, building into a cacophony of personal prayers.
The fun and flirtatious “Take Me or Leave Me” gave Clemons and Hudgens a chance to bring the heat, and bring it they did.
A few quick take-aways:
Mario landed with a solid “You’ll See.”
Broadway veteran Keala Settle (featured in the recent "The Greatest Showman") delivered rich, earthy vocals along with the heart necessary to bring “Seasons of Love” to life.
Prior to his show-stopping “I’ll Cover You,” seeing Tom Collins climb in bed with his sick lover, Angel, was a powerful visual.
Vanessa Hudgens was totally game for Maureen’s performance art piece, “Over The Moon,” head thrashes and all.
I wish we'd seen more of Sonya Tayeh's terrific choreography. At times the camera would pull back, and we'd see there was some great stuff going on in the background. Her staging for "Contact" was a highpoint.
There was a fun ‘in-joke’ during a flea market shopping scene where a sweater that looked like original Broadway cast member Anthony Rapp’s iconic costume was held up, and the shopper’s gave a quick ‘oh no.’
And having the entire original Broadway cast appear at the end for the finale/reprise of “Seasons of Love” was another emotional highlight.
There were some quibbles to be had:
Valentina, while game, was vocally uneven in "Today 4 You" and "I'll Cover You."
The production could have used a greater sense of urgency at times (Mr. Hunt and Tinashe, I’m looking at you). “Light My Candle” needed more flirtation in their ‘cat and mouse’ chase.
The constant camera movement might have undercut the aesthetic weight of the acting, cutting away too quick at times.
But, on a whole, the presentation was powerfully moving.
And, the show put queer relationships and the AIDS epidemic back in front of a television audience.
Good for FOX. More please.
The opinions expresses here reflect those of the writer, and not of Instinct Magazine nor its other contributors.