Review: 'Revolution Rent' a 'Season of Love' in Havana

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday June 15, 2021

'Revolution Rent'
'Revolution Rent'  (Source:HBO)

Andy Señor Jr. played Angel in the original Broadway production of "Rent." Now he writes and co-directs a documentary about how he helmed a staging of the musical in Cuba in 2014 - the first time in half a century a Broadway play was staged there.

It's a rocky road every step of the way. When Señor is first offered the chance to direct the show, his mother, Gloria, opposes it vehemently; both she and Señor's father had fled Cuba when Castro came to power. Señor's brother in law, too, counsels him against going, telling him that he will only be "helping he government" of the communist country if he does.

But Señor sees it differently. He has both artistic and personal reasons for wanting to take the job. What follows is a five-month odyssey as Señor assembles a cast and crew in Havana and then struggles against limited resources, power outages, and a lack of Broadway-style professionalism among certain of his actors.

The film boasts a colorful roster of local talent, several of whom are openly gay and at least one of whom - a straight woman - finds it problematic whenever another woman touches her. ("I'm not prejudiced or anything," she explains.) The camera follows the actors into their homes and personal lives for a few brief moments here and there, and we find out that for artists in Cuba — as anywhere else — paying the rent is a tough proposition, even if you are starring in the globally famed musical.

But the film's true drama revolve's around Señor's journey and that of his mother. Señor wrestles with getting the show into shape even as he comes down with a case of tonsillitis; the physician he visits gives him sound advice from both a medical and a cultural standpoint: She tells him he's got to have "bomba," a powerful passion that might involve speaking rudely to the cast but that will model for them the commitment and energy he needs them to bring.

Meantime, Gloria has moved from "If you do this I will never sleep again!" to a decision to visit Cuba herself for the first time in fifty years. It's an emotional journey that includes a visit to a cemetery, where she searches for her mother's grace, flowers in hand.

Will the cast gel into the same sort of family that the musical depicts? Will Señor be able to shepherd the production to a successful Dec. 24th opening night (the date "Rent" creator Jonathan Larson had wanted for the show's original Broadway production, but didn't live to see)? The drama sometimes feels stuck at a reality TV level, especially when Señor is fretting over his cast's inability to take direction (a gripping predicament for those in the room, but of limited interest to film viewers), but glimpses at the production process — costuming, Señor at work directing the actors and working to "Cubanize" the script, adjusting the Spanish translation — charm and illuminate.

Compelling, too, is the backdrop against which the production is taking place. It's 2014, remember, and pre-Trump America has a president who is interested in building bridges internationally and maintaining close ties with existing allies. For a brief moment, Cuba and the U.S. contemplate normalizing relations — a "Season of Love" indeed, and the perfect historical moment at which to bring "Rent" to Havana.

The doc heads to HBO Max to mark the 25th anniversary of "Rent's" Broadway opening in 1996, and it's a fitting tribute. It would also pair nicely with a viewing of the 2005 Chris Columbus-directed film, which stars half a dozen members of the original Broadway cast.

"Revolution Rent" premieres on HBO Max June 15.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.