Critic's Notebook: No Day Like Yesterday, On a Not-So-Live 'Rent'

Matt Roush
Review Ray Mickshaw/FOX

"Tonight's show is in mortal danger due to technical difficulties."

Well, yes. That's show biz. This uncannily prescient line of dialogue from hipster/narrator Mark (a blandly ingenuous Jordan Fisher) underscored the unprecedented-for-TV dilemma faced by Fox's Rent revival when its other leading man, Brennin Hunt as a smoldering Roger, broke his foot toward the end of Saturday's dress rehearsal (thankfully also performed in front of an enthusiastic live audience).

Vanessa Hudgens on Channeling Her Inner 'Diva' as Maureen on 'Rent' & Her 'SYTYCD' Future

Vanessa Hudgens on Channeling Her Inner 'Diva' as Maureen on 'Rent' & Her 'SYTYCD' Future

How's she approaching the iconic character? Is she nervous? The actress spills ahead of the January 27 live musical on Fox.

In an instant-replay variation of "the show must go on," Fox opted not to go live on Sunday—except for the final 15-minute act (with Brennan's cast-enclosed foot propped on a chair)—instead airing the "previously recorded" video of Saturday's dry run. Unlike a real Broadway show or Busby Berkeley musical (see: 42nd Street), there were no standbys or understudies.

And while the result was a respectable version of the late Jonathan Larson's irreverent and heartfelt ’90s pop-rock opera (with a few lyric tweaks for broadcast purposes), the electricity and adrenaline of a truly live performance was often lacking. Muddy sound and muted vocals left the impression that many in the cast may have been holding back for the actual opening night—the exceptions being Brandon Victor Dixon's passionate Tom Collins and Vanessa Hudgens as rowdy activist Maureen—whose combative love duet ("Take Me or Leave Me") with Kiersey Clemons' Joanne was a high point. (Nothing, however, could rescue Maureen's performance-art number "Over the Moon," a show-stopper in the most literal and negative sense.)

RENT: L-R: Tinashe and Brennin Hunt in RENT airing Sunday, Jan. 27 (8:00-11:00 PM ET LIVE/PT TAPE-DELAYED) on FOX. ©2019 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Kevin Estrada/FOX

The towering multi-tiered set, enveloping an audience on bleachers and in a mosh pit, was impressively immersive, with scaffolding reminiscent of NBC's Jesus Christ Superstar special. But the sprawl could make the action hard for all but the most die-hard Rent-heads to follow, and overly busy swirling camerawork added an extra layer of unnecessary chaos.

RENT: L-R: Tinashe, Mario and Vanessa Hudgens in RENT airing Sunday, Jan. 27 (8:00-11:00 PM ET LIVE/PT TAPE-DELAYED) on FOX. ©2019 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Kevin Estrada/FOX

A theme of mortality haunts any production of Rent, starting with its fabled opening in 1996. Larson died just before his show launched off-Broadway to raves and ultimately global blockbuster status. The impoverished characters in his East Village rendering of La Boheme struggle with HIV and drug addiction. So while it was chilling at times to watch this taped version with the foreknowledge that disaster was looming for its star, there's also an argument (made often on Twitter) that Fox might have produced a more memorable Rent if it had adopted the spirit of Larson's work and confronted this setback head-on, going truly live with Hunt performing seated.

'Rent' Star Jordan Fisher Talks His Dreams Coming True With Fox's Live Musical

'Rent' Star Jordan Fisher Talks His Dreams Coming True With Fox's Live Musical

The 'Dancing With the Stars' winner, who plays filmmaker Mark Cohen, gives us a preview of the January 27 event.

When the show went live in its final act, there was an injection of emotional clarity and energy that had heretofore been missing. The climactic introduction of Rent's original Broadway cast for a jubilant reprise of Seasons of Love added to the what-might-have-been vibe.