Monday, August 15, 2011

'Rent' Returns, and a 'Talls' Tale

The cast of Rent (photo by Joan Marcus)
Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Michael Greif
Starring Annaleigh Ashford, Adam Chanler-Berat, Nicholas Christopher, Arianda Fernandez, Corbin Reid, MJ Rodriguez, Matthew Shingledecker, Ephraim Sykes, Margot Bingham, Marcus Paul James, Tamika Sonja Lawrence, Ben Thompson, Michael Wartella, Morgan Weed
New World Stages
340 West 50th Street; New York, NY
Previews began July 14, 2011; opened August 11, 2011

The Talls
Written by Anna Kerrigan; directed by Carolyn Cantor
Starring Gerard Canonico, Timothee Chalamet, Shannon Esper, Lauren Holmes, Michael Oberholtzer, Peter Rini, Christa Scott-Reed
Second Stage Uptown
2162 Broadway; New York, NY
Previews began August 1, 2011; opened August 15, closes August 27

For a musical that’s been celebrated as an uplifting theatrical event, Rent has been haunted by death, starting with the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, on the eve of its original off-Broadway opening in January 1996. After Larson died, Rent has gone on to rave reviews, a Broadway transfer (where it ran for 12 years) , Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.

The musical itself, a self-consciously hip updating of Puccini’s opera La Boheme to the East Village of the early ‘90s, is filled with characters dealing with the fatal specter of AIDS. The narrator (and Larson stand-in) Mark, a budding filmmaker from Scarsdale, is our guide to the various relationships among these people, like his ex, Maureen, a performance artist now seeing Joanne, a lawyer; his roommate, Roger, a budding songwriter who is in love with Mimi, local Latina spitfire and careless drug user; and Angel, the local drag queen, who has just met the love of his/her life, Collins.

Larson shrewdly covers all of the sexual bases--gay, lesbian, hetero and bi--but his score, which comprises mostly forgettably generic pop-rock with power ballads thrown in like the show’s big number “Seasons of Love,” only perks up musically during the wittily atypical “Tango Maureen.”

So why has Rent been revived a mere three years after ending its initial and hugely successful run? At the performance I attended, the primarily youthful audience--which probably hasn’t seen the show while it was on Broadway--whooped it up and cheered lustily after every number, which means they’d probably seen the lackluster movie version several times and memorized it. Whether these fans will be enough to keep the second coming of Rent going for awhile, let alone for a dozen years, remains to be seen.

But Larson’s book has aged better than his music and lyrics: although the characters are caricatures, they are vividly brought to life by Larson’s obvious affection for them and their travails, and that affection is transferred to the audience in this new staging by the director of the original, Michael Greif. The energy of the enthusiastic young performers is certainly infectious, and the smaller stage area helps maximize the show’s intimacy, which was missing in the cavernous Nederlander Theater on Broadway.

If Rent isn’t the classic rock musical it’s been described as, in its new incarnation it’s an effective, even affecting slice of life during a specific time and place in a New York City that seems more distant every year.

Esper and Holmes in Kerrigan's The Talls (photo by Joan Marcus)

Another slice of life from a distant time and place, Anna Kerrigan’s comedy The Talls centers on the upper middle-class Clarke family in Oakland in 1970. Its title comes from the fact that children--Isabelle, 17; Christian, 16; Catherine, 15; and Nicholas, 12--have sprouted early for their ages. But happily, Kerrigan doesn’t try and make too much comedic hay out of their height, and instead creates a funny, pungent glimpse at Isabelle, the oldest and the one with the most baggage. A senior planning to leave for Brown University in the fall, she desperately feels the weight of unwanted expectations from her parents, younger brothers and sister.

One evening, her family runs out unexpectedly when a close friend of Mom’s is rushed to the hospital, and Isabelle is home alone when the college-age Russell (her father’s campaign manager in his current run for city comptroller) arrives to give the family its marching orders for the upcoming political campaign. In no time, Isabelle is drinking, toking up and having sex, which doesn’t seem to faze her increasingly clueless family at all (with the exception of Nicholas).

At 80 intermission less minutes, The Talls is almost too slight, but despite its small scale, there’s much to enjoy. Kerrigan’s tart dialogue has the ring of truth to it, especially in the early interactions of her family, which sets the stage for what follows. The play’s plausibility is underlined by Dane Laffery’s brilliantly detailed set, which down to its tiniest features gets the Clarkes’ Catholic lives exactly right (check out the funeral mass card stuck into the mirror!).

Carolyn Cantor’s spot-on directing does miracles with seven performers on a cramped set who are milling around the living room sofa or dining room table. Although each member of the splendid cast is terrifically good, special kudos go to Shannon Esper, whose Isabelle is one of the most believable teenagers I’ve ever seen onstage. Esper uses her lanky body and mature face to suggest how uncomfortable Isabelle is in her own skin, showing the budding maturity of the eldest Clarke daughter and the crushing weight of responsibility she feels.

The Talls, an appealing family portrait of a family, is made indispensible by Esper’s beautifully nuanced portrayal.

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