Sometimes my instincts are wrong.
"I don't think I can sit through Rent again," I grumbled to my wife last week on the night Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical made its regional premiere at Playhouse on the Square.
We'd chosen to miss the play's opening to take in an art exhibition in a beautifully restored building on Front Street where we lived in the mid-1990s when the neighborhood wasn't nearly so nice and the roof was falling in. It was the perfect clubhouse for a bunch of artists, actors, writers, and musicians who functioned as an extended family and didn't mind working, playing, and crashing in near-squalor.
Watching all the neatly dressed patrons milling about at the art opening reminded me how much I'd disliked Larson's Friends-era mashup of Puccini's La Bohème and The Big Chill, which I remembered as a silly cartoon-sized soap opera exploiting the same indie-artist stereotypes who used to hang out at my grimy former studio.
The touring Broadway productions of Rent have become unimaginably precious, but in its leap to the regional stage, the show may have evolved for the better. Playhouse on the Square's up-tempo take on this downbeat musical about artists and junkies who decide not to pay for their crummy Alphabet City apartments is louder, harder-edged, and more emotionally honest than anything Memphis audiences have seen from this script. Director/choreographer Courtney Oliver plays things straight without glossing over or romanticizing the musical's grittier elements, and she gets a show that recaptures a bit of Rent's original spirit.
Alvaro Francisco practically emits his own light as Angel, the dying transsexual who teaches the rest of the cast how to live. Francisco has done his share of skirt roles this season, but this fabulousness was worth waiting for.
Veteran techie Rory Dale is still new to acting at Playhouse, and he's a little stiff around the edges as Roger, the play's spiky-haired wannabe rock star who has a turbulent relationship with his junkie-stripper girlfriend, Mimi. But Dale knows his way around the guitar, and when he sings, he sounds like a kid who grew up pretending to be a rocker — not pretending to be an American Idol contestant. That makes a big difference.
Lili Thomas, Matt Reed, David Ryan, and Marcus Gill round out an excellent ensemble.
Through July 26th
I seldom enjoy a long-running Broadway shows once they've become famous for being long-running Broadway shows. That goes double for tours and triple if the show features cool special effects or humans dressed up as cute animals. But the Wicked tour, currently docked at the Orpheum, smashes all expectations. It's energized and fresh, and it boasts a stellar cast that won't be upstaged by a bunch of technical wizardry.
Wicked is a sophisticated steampunk-inspired prequel to The Wizard of Oz that puts preconceived ideas about good and evil on trial as it tells the story of two old friends: Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West.
Helene Yorke's dynamic, bubble-headed Glinda cracks up her castmates who break character to laugh but never miss a beat. Marcie Dodd is her equal in every way, making Elphaba a nerdy green-skinned girl next door with a voice so big and inviting it's actually more impressive than the gravity-defying stunt at the end of act one.
Wicked is a big show about minute details, from the finely crafted set and costumes to the uniformly quirky and commanding cast.