Fox's 'Rent': TV Review

This televised dress rehearsal too often failed to come to life.

Fox's decidedly not-live 'Rent' was an uneven mess, but Vanessa Hudgens, Kiersey Clemons and Brandon Victor Dixon still shined.

The "full disclosure" preamble: As much as I admire its topical significance and the tragic and then triumphant journey it took to the stage, I'm not a Rent fan. Don't get me wrong, I can reluctantly sing most of the songs, and I saw the show's original London cast (which helped) and the movie (which should be launched into the sun), but I was probably going to need Fox's long-developing live production to be pretty special in order to go all-in.

Then again, I'd describe Fox's live production of Grease and NBC's live staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, another musical I don't love, as "pretty special." The bar is high, not insurmountable.

My heart breaks a little for the Rent team, because it's not like it was anybody's strategic plan to have Brennin Hunt break his foot on the night of the dress rehearsal, forcing Sunday's telecast to begin with a daunting "previously recorded" notice and a full-cast announcement at the first commercial break that most of the show would be what was shot at said dress rehearsal, building to a live final segment. "The show must go on," they said enthusiastically.

But can I cynically say that what the producers opted to do was the exact opposite? The show going on would have been one of two things: First, they could have had understudies for most major roles, as most live productions tend to. You know why shows have understudies? Because the show must go on. Are you going to tell me one of the guys in the ensemble couldn't have stepped in? If so, you didn't cast the ensemble very well. Or if they didn't have an understudy, they could have quickly strategized a live concert setting with a limited staging around Hunt and then aired the dress rehearsal at some point during the week. The staging and choreography still would have been seen and Rent-heads are a crazy devoted lot and many would have happily watched a second time.

Rent is a show about immediacy and living in the moment and making the most of the present. There are songs called "Out Tonight" and "Today 4 U" and one of its most famous lines is about there being "no day but today." What we were treated to tonight was "Out Last Night," "Today 4 U, Yesterday 4 Us" and "No day Including Today."

I'd never accuse anybody in this cast of consciously holding back. But dress rehearsals are dress rehearsals; even if you're giving everything you have, the adrenaline is different.

None of that is to say that Fox's Rent was a complete disaster. In the early going it felt like it might be. Instead, the second act picked up admirably and there was a stretch of songs peaking with Vanessa Hudgens and Kiersey Clemons' spectacular "Take Me or Leave Me," a wonderfully choreographed "Contact" and Brandon Victor Dixon's predictable emotional decimation (in a good way) of "I'll Cover You." Throw in an undeniably weighty and undeniably pandering "Seasons of Love" reprise featuring the original Broadway cast at the end and it wouldn't surprise me at all if some portion of devotees left the production somewhere between "completely satisfied" and "reasonably content."

Then again, many of those fans probably spent the previous two hours being utterly outraged by the accommodations to Larson's text that had to be made to get Rent onto broadcast TV. If you need evidence of how wildly ahead of the curve Larson was with his transposing of Puccini's La Boheme onto life in the East Village in the age of AIDS, check out the small tweaks and strange cut-aways this production had to enact. Maybe by 2050, we'll be ready for Rent Uncut and Actually Live. Oh and if Fox can't do an unadulterated Rent, I'm baffled how NBC thinks they're going to do a live Hair. Me, I was more bothered by the resetting of some songs in lower octaves to spare the not-ready-for-Broadway cast than just how many nonsensical lyrical revisions there were in "La Vie Boheme." 

Maybe it was the dress rehearsal thing and maybe it wasn't, but the cast was uneven.

I've already mentioned the real breakouts.

Hudgens' arrival delivered all of the energy that most of the first act was missing. It somewhat upends the traditional interpretation of the character when Maureen's "Over the Moon" is as sexy, hilarious and well-sung as the character thinks it is, rather than the somewhat ludicrous performance art piece the show wants it to be. Hudgens, who was also the standout in Fox's Grease, had incendiary chemistry with Clemons, who was the production's most consistent powerhouse vocalist as well. Proving that with live TV musicals maybe past performance actually is a guarantee of future results, Jesus Christ Superstar dynamo Dixon nailed his big solos and also had to carry Tom's duets with Angel, because although Valentina acted and danced with aplomb, her singing voice just wasn't there. At all. Dixon held his own in a role that will always bear Jesse L. Martin's imprint, and that's impressive.

It isn't Tinashe's fault her Mimi couldn't equal Daphne Rubin-Vega's. Still, that's a character whose big numbers, especially "Out Tonight," can bring down the house. They should be animalistic and raw. Instead, Tinashe was fine, which is also how I'd describe Hunt's Roger, and together their duets averaged out as fine — probably a little less than that on "Light My Candle" and a little more than that on "Without You," which coasted on that solid Act II wave. Jordan Fisher's interpretation of Mark was better in the dancing than the singing, which never felt matched to his register.

Jason Sherwood's multitiered, 360-degree stage setup was admirably ambitious, and television director Alex Rudzinski and stage director Michael Greif did their best to make use of the space. "Christmas Bells" was probably my favorite use of the platforms and scaffolding, though choreographer Sonya Tayeh took some pleasure in spreading out the action and practically daring Rudzinski's camera to catch everything. There were moments, especially in the nauseating opening number, that I felt like telling Rudzinski that just because the stage allowed for constant camera movement didn't make it required. I preferred how he captured "Will I?" in a single tracking shot, using the camera, stage and ensemble to visualize the scope of the AIDS epidemic powerfully.

Then as soon as "Will I?" ended, Fox cut away to a commercial for Tim Burton's Dumbo. So much for momentum. Over and over again, Rent squandered momentum because Fox needed to pay the rent. The ad breaks were too long, too frequent, placed with too little care within the show and the first commercials in each break were reliably ill-selected. There has to be a better way to do this, keeping in mind that the ad space is valuable when the shows are live and Rent was, as we've already covered, live for less than 15 minutes. I don't know what the solution is here. Onscreen chyrons in unobtrusive places? Sponsored intermissions in lieu of breaks every 10 minutes? If you're trying to honor the live theater experience, this isn't the way. If you're trying to honor Rent, this isn't the way.

Honestly, thanks to Hudgens, Clemons and Dixon, I got close to all I needed out of Fox's Rent. It was going to take a lot more than this for Rent to really move me, but low expectations can be a useful thing.

Aired Sunday, Jan. 27, on Fox. Not live.