Review: Not even live, Fox's 'Rent' was more a season of lousy than love

Kelly Lawler

It was never going to be easy. 

With its almost entirely sung rock-opera score, its mature themes and language, 1990s punchlines and status as a cult phenomenon, "Rent" has become one of the hardest musicals to pull off. And it's even harder to do on family-friendly broadcast television in 2019. 

Fox's live version of the Broadway musical about starving artists living in New York during the AIDS epidemic was disadvantaged from the moment it was announced. The choice a marked contrast to the network's previous musicals, the delightful "Grease Live!" and the cringe-worthy "A Christmas Story Live!"

And things for "Rent" were made ever worse when, just a day before the show was supposed to go on, one of the cast members broke his foot, forcing the network to air a Frankenstein of a show with substantial amount of pre-recorded material from Saturday's rehearsal during the hyped "live" broadcast. 

Vanessa Hudgens, Jordan Fisher and cast members in "Rent."

The result made the best of a very bad situation. It's theater after all; the show must go on. But the rehearsal performance combined with other problems – dizzying staging and camera work, a too-loud audience, awkward lines and lyrics substituted for curse words – made it difficult for "Rent" to, well, sing. 

Unlike the much-maligned 2005 film version of the musical, producers of Fox's "Rent" left the lengthy all-singing-all-the-time script mostly intact and built a set that looked more like a Broadway stage than the larger, more immersive TV-centric sets from "Grease" and "Story."

The production also eschewed big stars (well, except for Vanessa Hudgens, I guess) in favor of young talent like Kiersey Clemons ("Dope"), Brandon Victor Dixon ("Jesus Christ Superstar in Concert"), "RuPaul's Drag Race" star Valentina and singer Tinashe. 

RENT: Top L-R to Bottom L-R: Brandon Victor Dixon as Tom Collins, Valentina as Angel Dumont Schunard, Jordan Fisher as Mark Cohen, Mario as Benjamin Coffin III, Kiersey Clemons as Joanne Jefferson, Vanessa Hudgens as Maureen Johnson, Brennin Hunt as Roger Davis and Tinashe as Mimi Marquez in RENT airing Sunday, Jan. 27 (8:00-11:00 PM ET LIVE/PT TAPE-DELAYED) on FOX.

With a group of sweet-voiced young whippersnappers and the director of the original Broadway production, Michael Greif, "Rent" seemed to have the right ingredients to rise above its many challenges. But when the metaphorical curtain rose, the magic just wasn't there. The show just felt wrong from the first (taped) note. 

The audience surrounding the stage was energetic to a fault, sometimes overpowering the singers. The too-dark set, paired with an endlessly spinning camera that nearly induced nausea, made the show excruciatingly hard to follow, even for those familiar with the material. The energy was low, and the chemistry between many of the romantically linked characters lackluster.

Adapting the script, the producers made odd choices, handing  "Seasons of Love," the most famous song in the show, to minor characters.

Jordan Fisher as Mark and Brennin Hunt as Roger in "Rent."

Worse, it failed to create the deep, affecting emotion the musical is known for. When Dixon, the show-stopping standout from "Jesus," sang the usually devastating ballad "I'll Cover You Reprise" at his lover's funeral, it was beautiful, but rang hollow. The spirited artist anthem "La Vie Boheme" landed with a thud. 

From the social-media followings of its stars to the handy history of what the world was like in 1991, "Rent" seems like it was engineered to attract a Generation Z audience. But if today's teens were going to discover and love "Rent" the way millennials did after the original Broadway run ended, it was never going to be through a live Fox musical with cursing censored and awkward voiceovers explaining the AIDS epidemic. There's nothing natural or organic about trying to absorb it between ads for "Dumbo" and "The Masked Singer." 

It was a nice touch to bring the original Broadway cast out to sing "Seasons of Love" at the end, but it all seemed a bit forced. 

La vie boheme isn't simple for anyone.