There are revelations in David Cromer's intensely textured, hyper-naturalistic "Rent," staged, alley-style, in an thrillingly transformed American Theater Company, on a set designed by Collette Pollard to feel entirely like an gritty extension of the songwriter Roger and filmmaker Mark's 1990s loft. Those of us who've seen this great American musical a dozen times surely have never seen a more moving, honest staging of the affirmation circle that sings "Will I?," nor such a dark, despairing rendition of Roger's "One Song Glory" nor a sweeter or more moving exploration of "I'll Cover You," nor a richer or more diverse visual picture of an East Village milieu where it's cold out and people are dying.
And Cromer, a great American director whose great loyalty to off-Loop Chicago theater means he walks the walk back in his hometown, has not just darkened La Vie Boheme. He skillfully interweaves the youth and immaturity of many of these characters, stripping away Mark's customary articulate surety (Alan Schmuckler's performance is intentionally ordinary) and reminding us that Mimi is, really, just a sweet kid in trouble, not some romantic icon. Each of Jonathan Larson's East Village kids has a different escape route — some are easy, some close to nonexistent — and Cromer's staging honors and sets off each individual in a way I've never seen before with this piece, thanks in no small part to the costumes of David Hyman. Moreover, he points up the contrast between the upper-middle-class kids whose rebellion is a choice and those with whom they share the frigid streets for whom poverty is a reality unshakable by performance art.
But "Rent" is a musical and not just any musical.
A crucial thread of its fabric lies in the contrast between the toughness of these characters' lives and the gorgeous, soaring music they sing. This production (a co-production by American Theater Company and About Face Theatre) features a raft of principals, with only a couple of exceptions, who consistently struggle with its musical demands. And when actors are wandering off key or losing each other, whatever else you may or may not be doing with your "Rent" money becomes joltingly tertiary.
Some of this crippling problem — one of the more disappointing things I've ever seen on a Chicago stage, given what surrounds it — is doubtless a consequence of casting, which seems to have put musical chops too low on the list. But with many of these actors — the confoundingly inconsistent Derrick Trumbly, who plays Roger, being one — you come to see from the intermittent evidence before you that many of these actors are capable of achieving far more with this score than they managed at Monday night's opening. But in some cases, Cromer has just made it too difficult for them: the terrific band is up high, there's no conductor visible to the actors, and many of the big numbers start with characters in distant crevices of the theater. You'd have to be a formidable vocalist to thrive in such circumstances, especially since the band is loud and the actors have inadequate help with amplification, another misstep here. The sound mix is rarely pleasing to the ear.
Sometimes the singing just gets overwhelmed by the other elements of staging. Examples would be "Over the Moon," sung (or, rather, not sung) by Aileen May, who has all the necessary emotion and commitment as Maureen but not the notes. Grace Gealey's invulnerable Mimi struggles similarly, which kills off most of her crucial appeal. You can see what Cromer is going for when he has Trumbly's Roger sing "Your Eyes" in the mode of conversational a cappella — he is trying to commit Roger and the ailing Mimi in a more intimate way — but he seems to forget that there is no intimacy greater than the beauty of these notes.
In other words, there is just not enough accommodation made here to the demands of the musical form. This feels like a show that stretched everyone with its ambition — a fine thing, in so many ways, given the richness of the vision — but it has not resulted in a cast that feels, or sounds, sufficiently secure, especially when singing alone. Only the terrific Alex Agard, who plays Tom Collins, and Lili-Anne Brown, who plays Joanne, feel fully in control. And in Act 2, things seem to go quite seriously awry. Transitions get tense. Cohesion wobbles. And Angel, very sweetly and honestly played by Esteban Andres Cruz, dances jarringly to his demise almost in the dark.
I couldn't tell for sure whether this was a choice — Heather Gilbert's lights rarely made faces pop — or an opening-night technical problem, but I know for sure that it took Angel and Larson's music away from us, just when we needed it the most.
When: Through June 17
Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St.
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Tickets: $45-$50 at 773-409-4125 or atcweb.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye