When FOX aired Grease Live in 2016, I was offended that it was a scene-for-scene imitation of the 1978 John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John film. The Broadway show is a different animal than the film, and I was hoping that Grease Live would forge new ground by capturing the elements left out of 1978 film that make the Broadway show so good.
Fast forward to 2019 and FOX airs RENT Live. We already had the 2005 Christopher Columbus film featuring most of the original Broadway cast. We also had RENT – Filmed Live on Broadway, providing a true reflection of the magic of the stage version.
The anticipation for what version of Rent we would be seeing on FOX built right up until the program aired.
RENT Live is its own animal. It didn’t mimic the stage show. It didn’t mimic the theatrical movie. It was an entity all by itself and that I applaud and will highly recommend grabbing the DVD or Blu-ray when it comes out.
The story is loosely based on the opera La Boheme. It focuses on a group of young starving artists who exist as squatters, while many are trying to find out how to live with AIDs.
Among the fresh aspects of the television event is the remarkable set. The set is what amounts to a whole city block for New York’s Alphabet City. There are multiple building and sidewalks. It is an entire RENT city.
That’s when I realized I would be remiss if I was to compare RENT Live to any of the other versions. Interestingly enough the director for RENT Live was Michael Grief, the man who directed the original Broadway production. His co-director Alex Rudzinski played a pivotal part in both Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert and Grease Live
Jordan Fisher is an interesting choice to play Mark – the would-be journalist who documents the story of his closest friends living with HIV. The role is scripted as a bookish Jewish young man. Jordan Fisher is black. Despite the fact that I have never personally met a black Jew, they certainly do exist, so I didn’t let that aspect of the casting hold me up from liking Fisher.
Fisher does an excellent job in the role. He has a personable personality, and a fine singing voice. Most impressive with his delivery is that he sang the role as written. Many of the other cast spent too much time doing unneeded riffs in their delivery.
My only complaint about Fisher is his age. Fisher appears to be in his late teens or early twenties. By contrast, his best friend and roommate Roger (played by Brennin Hunt) looks to be in his mid-thirties, and his ex-girlfriend Maureen (played by Vanessa Hudgens) also appears to be in her thirties.
Hunt’s Roger is a brooding rebel would-be rock star. Hunt is a good singer and a great guitar player, but I thought his take on the character was too one dimensional – either angry or angrier. Not much in else.
As Tom Collins, a quirky adjunct college professor who offers teaching such as Actual Reality, Brandon Victor Dixon does a stellar job. The real test for this role is the delivery of the reprise of I’ll Cover You, and Dixon passes that test with nary a dry eye in the audience.
The villain of the story is Benjamin Coffin III. He lived with Roger and Mark in poverty, but when he got lucky and married into wealth, he becomes a clear Republican obsessed with money and uncaring about people. R&B singer Mario is very effective in the role.
Also crossing platforms from the world of R&B music to the Rent stage is Tinashe, who fills the role of Mimi Marquez a young exotic dancer who becomes Roger’s girlfriend.
The only really bad casting was that of Valentina as Angel Dumott Schunard. Despite being a drag queen herself as documented on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Valentina is too old for the role, and sang it miserably. The only excuse for singing that bad in a show with a budget as big as Rent Live would be if it turned out the singer had laryngitis….and even then you’d wonder why they didn’t send in the understudy.
The supporting role of street performer and protest stager Maureen is Rent Live’s big-name celebrity – Vanessa Hudgens. The role is an unforgiving one, as it must deliver the song Over the Moon. Jonathan Larson was a great composer, but not every song is going to be great. There were a great number of songs in the original workshop performances that did not make it into the final version to premier on Broadway. I think if Larson had not died before Rent made it to Broadway, this would be the one song that probably would have been rewritten or replaced.
So how does Hudgens fair? She did the best she could with the role. Her take was to be sinfully playful and oblivious to her own short comings. It’s not the choice many actresses have made in the past with the role, but it works for Hudgens. She is always a joy to see perform. I think she is simply fantastic.
As Maureen’s girlfriend Joanne, Kiersey Clemons is every bit the role. As Joanne, she isn’t as attractive as some others so she gets insanely jealous when she sees Maureen flirting with more beautiful girls. Yet in terms of determination and intelligence, Joanne is the smartest of the bunch. Clemons portrays these subtleties of the character brilliantly.
Overall, I really enjoyed the live television event.
Heck, they even found a way to slip Keala Settle into the ensemble – a true treat! I fell in love with Settle’s powerful and expressive voice when I first saw her in the movie The Greatest Showman.
The way the creative staff and cast accomplished creating something new makes seeing RENT Live worth it.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, I give RENT Live a 7.75.