Two Broadway Stalwarts at Hub Stages

Strong but Uneven Rent Comes Up a Bit Short; King and I Delights Anew

Rent, 20th Anniversary Tour, Shubert Theatre-Boch Center, Boston. Through April 23.

The King and I, Opera House, Boston. Through April 23. broadwayinboston.com

By Jules Becker

Two decades ago, Jonathan Larson captured the public imagination with a musical that saw New York friends and neighbors — gay and straight, African-American and white, Jewish and Christian — as an extended family as the millennium approached. The inspired late Jewish composer (who died in 1996 at the age of 35) won a Pulitzer and a Tony posthumously for the long-running musical “Rent.” Larson based pivotal narrating Jewish documentarian Mark Cohen on himself and his filmmaking friend Eddie Rosenstein. If the “La Boheme”–inspired show reflected their experiences as struggling artists, it also evoked a youthful spirit with which many of its fans identified. Surprisingly, the 20th anniversary tour at the Shubert Theatre only partially captures that spirit and the ensemble force such a tribute edition ought to achieve.

Broadway powerhouse Michael Greif fired up that ensemble in earlier editions, but tour director Evan Ensign seems to have found the right feeling and vocal balance with some cast members but not with others. The good news is that Mark, who seeks to help the neighborhood as well as advance his career as a filmmaker, is played by very talented Danny Harris Kornfeld. Kornfeld brings together Mark’s youthful enthusiasm, his regret about losing his performance artist girlfriend Maureen to grounded lawyer Joanne and his profound loneliness in the later going. Kornfeld amusingly credits Mark’s dancing skills to his practice with a rabbi’s daughter. He and Jasmine Easler, properly feisty as Joanne, bring impressive style to “Tango Maureen,” one of the tour’s highlights.

Danny Harris Kornfeld, Christian Thompson, and Kaleb Wells star in ‘Rent’ (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The same goes for Skyler Volpe as drug-addicted Mimi, who spellbinds Mark’s guitar-playing, tentative songwriter roommate Roger Davis. Volpe possesses all of Mimi’s allure and growing despair. Volpe evokes her insecurity in the richly simple Mimi-Roger duet “Without You.”  While Kaleb Wells as Roger — infected with AIDS by his back story former girlfriend — does have moments of chemistry with Volpe, his singing often needs more modulation and varied tone — noticeably on their “Light My Candle” duo. Still, Wells’ closing rendition of Roger’s complete song “Your Eyes” does have more thoughtful phrasing.

The actors portraying the show’s same-sex couples are also a study in contrast. Katie Lamark needs to make Maureen more subtle as a seductress. She also needs to develop her singing — especially on the image-rich solo “Over the Moon.” By contrast, Aaron Harrington as soulful teacher Tom Collins, and David Merino as fragile AIDS-suffering drag queen Angel Schunard, display compelling caring as well as strong vocals. Their “I’ll Cover You” love duet has the right tenderness, and Harrington’s second act reprise is very moving.

“Rent” has had considerable impact as a musical. Young theatergoers have thronged to its incorporation of operatic features from Puccini’s landmark effort along with its exploration of a very diverse New York. There are moments about dignity and the challenges of youth in some numbers that suggests an important influence on ensemble moments in “Spring Awakening the Musical” — for example the latter’s “The Bitch of Living.” For the record, the audience in which I saw the tour largely rose to a standing ovation after the finale.  Even so, this revival owes its legions of tenants more artistic seasons of love.

*        *        *

Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana in ‘The King and I’ (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Thanks to an exquisite Tony Award-winning revival touring at the Opera House, Hub audiences are getting to know “The King and I” all over again. Director Bartlett Sher has richly emphasized the deep respect for Thai culture embedded in the Rodgers and Hammerstein gem. Special praise goes to Christopher Gattelli’s inspired choreography based on Jerome Robbins’ sublime original work. Gattelli’s edition of the telling ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” is a breath-taking standout.

If “South Pacific” denounced prejudice, “The King and I” brought significant attention to an Asian civilization as worthy of respect as any European one. Jose Llana triumphs as the ‘scientific’ King of Siam who comes to a meeting of mind and heart with British teacher Anna Leonowens. Llana has the right combination of imperiousness and intellectual curiosity as the monarch who considers building a wall to keep his country from becoming a British protectorate (a la then French protectorate Cambodia) but never calls unfamiliar truths ‘fake news.’ Laura Michelle Kelly – bringing sweet deliveries to such winning songs as “Hello Young Lovers” – makes Anna his tenacious and soulful match. To borrow from Lady Thiang’s description of her royal husband, this grand tour is something wonderful.

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