Review: RENT’s Oklahoma City production a worthwhile 20th anniversary tribute

It was the musical that made Broadway cool again, as one reviewer put it.

RENT opened 21 years ago, and I was among the lucky who got to see it on Broadway. It was during a business trip to New York City, and I had seen the ensemble perform “Seasons of Love” on the TODAY show. This is early Internet era, so I actually watched it on TV. Musically, I was sold.

During this trip to NYC, I spent my days at the Javitz Center, but I spent a good chunk of one particular day trying to procure tickets to see the hot new show at the Nederlander Theatre on 41st. There was no Ticketmaster back then. I had to call somebody on the phone and place an order. Talk about a pain in the butt.

I showed up early to the theatre, mostly because I didn’t know what the heck else to do in Manhattan and I didn’t have a ton of funds with which to do it (the real reason). Truth is: I was the first person to show up for the show that night, and I was struck by how intimate the Nederlander Theatre is. It’s not huge at all. Hell, it’s tiny.

The first person I saw was Wilson Cruz, who was playing Angel Dumott Schunard at the time. He was walking through the theatre in half-dress looking for something. I thought to myself: Kind of cool. Breaking the fourth wall before the show even starts.

Here’s what I realize two decades later: I saw Idina Menzel in her first big Broadway role. I saw Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin and Anthony Rapp, too, although I missed Adam Pascal (the original Roger) by about a month. Cruz was filling in for Wilson Jermaine Heredia on this night, and I believe Fredi Walker (Joanne) had just left the cast as well.

What I got to witness was a genuine early look at pop culture history, first-hand, and the show has always been an influence on me relative to a philosophy of creation-for-the-sake-of-creation. “The opposite of war isn’t peace; it’s creation,” as Mark says toward the end of “La Vie Boheme,” which closes the first act.

If “Seasons of Love” sold me on the show musically, “La Vie Boheme” is precisely and beautifully stereotypically what Broadway should be in its choreographed chaos, catchy music and memorable lines.

“Why Dorothy and Toto went over the rainbow to blow off Auntie Em…La Vie Boheme.”

So, RENT is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and it’s making a stop in Oklahoma City at the Civic Center Music Hall. If you’re looking for in-depth negative criticism, you won’t find it here. I’ll tell you about what I like, but I have no interest in tearing anybody down, and I can’t pretend to be too knowledgeable about Broadway. No, not everybody in this cast lived up to what I remember — but a couple folks damned sure did.

Collins. The review in The Oklahoman from opening night didn’t have great things to say about Aaron Harrington. In fact, his performance was largely panned by the paper. I *think* it may have been Devinre Adams to play Tom Collins on my evening, although I’m not sure. In my opinion, whoever played him had the best voice in the entire company and largely sounded just like the cast recording.

The Oklahoman’s primary criticism of Harrington’s performance was that he didn’t pull off the anarchist part of Collins’ character. I’m not sure what they were looking for: he was terrific.

Maureen. When she first appeared late in the first act, she did so much more majestically than I remember Menzel’s Maureen. And when Lyndie Moe performed “Over the Moon,” she did so with a ton more physicality than I remembered from Menzel. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but it kind of made me think of how Chris Farley would have done “Over the Moon.” What’s even more amazing is that Moe is only a freshman in college, studying at Rider University in New Jersey.

I didn’t like her Maureen…until I did. Moe was terrific, and I realized this about midway through the second act, after her “Take Me Or Leave Me” performance with Joanne, played aptly by Jasmine Easler. I don’t mind sounding like a fool here, but Moe was better to me than what Menzel was in New York City, not that I remember everything about that performance. Sitting in the cramped Nederlander some 20 years ago, I don’t remember thinking to myself, “Holy crap, I’m watching Idina Menzel!” For what it’s worth, the Broadway performance of RENT back in 1997 was highlighted by Cruz’s portrayal of Angel, who by most accounts is the character the entire story revolves around.

Aaron Alcaraz was solid as Angel here in Oklahoma City. If you were to ask me what it takes to pull off a production of RENT, I would tell you that your No. 1 task is to make sure you’ve got a strong Angel. Alcaraz studied at Ithaca College in New York and has credits in “Alladin” and “A Chorus Line.”

For those of you who don’t know the story behind RENT and its creator, it’s highly bittersweet. I’m guessing 99 percent of anybody who reads this blog post knows that Jonathan Larson died of an aortic aneurysm the night before the show’s big premiere. Reminds me of Eva Cassidy a bit, an artist who achieved fame only after death.

The only bad part about the experience at the Civic Center Music Hall is one that happens at venues across the country. Their employees obsess over scolding people who take photos before or during the show. On this particular night, the Civic Center Music Hall was only 50-60 percent full. It was so empty that ushers started guiding people to the front of the auditorium.

Before the show, about 10 minutes before, I snapped a photo of the stage from about 200 feet away. An usher named Maurice, wearing big red glasses, came by and said that photography was not allowed and that I needed to delete the photo I just took.

That wasn’t going to happen.

Here’s the deal, and this is for everybody in music, theatre and any kind of performance: Phones are here forever-more, and people spend money not for performances but for experiences, which encompasses the time before the production as well. Furthermore, in an economy where discretionary dollars are tough to come by, touring companies and concert promoters should beg customers to take photos and even record video to share on social media.

Beg them.

That is not an excuse for people to be obnoxious. I would argue that every event has its own norm, its own rules: Sometimes everybody is like, “Nope. No phones.” At others, people are like, “We goin’ Facebook Live up in here!” The behavior of the masses dictates what’s acceptable digitally.

There’s really nothing production companies can do about it — nor should they. I’ll go on a longer rant about this sometime, but they’re collective fools for not embracing technology. It does nothing to degrade the experience, especially when done before the show or at the end of it.

If you get a chance to see RENT while it’s in Oklahoma City, do so (they did a good job) — and take a photo right in front of Maurice. Do it for me.

And check out my version (a too slow version) of “Seasons of Love” that I posted to my YouTube channel this past week. I’d love it if you’d subscribe!! Or at least watch the video. It will only take three of your 525,600 minutes today.

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