Photos by Amy Boyle, courtesy of the Fabulous Fox Theatre.
There’s something kind of crass but also kind of impressive in the idea of anything celebrating its twentieth anniversary for four full years, and yet if anything has earned that kind of epic victory lap, it’s Rent. Penned by Jonathan Larson, who died unexpectedly mere days before the play’s premiere, this much-beloved 1996 musical takes the framework of Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera La Bohème and moves the action to Alphabet City in the East Village, where it uses a diverse cast to explore issues of poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In the intervening quarter century, huge strides have been made in increasing minority and LGBTQ representation in media to where casts like Rent’s are much more commonplace, and AIDS awareness has grown to where television today is blanketed with commercials advertising drugs to prevent the spread of the disease and to prevent a positive diagnosis from being the death sentence it once was. We’re living in the world Rent dreamed was possible.
The first act takes place entirely on Christmas Eve, introducing the musical’s sprawling ensemble and setting the action into motion. We meet two roommates—Mark (Cody Jenkins), a wannabe filmmaker, and Roger (Coleman Cummings), a wannabe musician struggling with depression and writer’s block—who were promised by their old third roomie, Benny (Juan Luis Espinal), that they would not be kicked out of the apartment they all once shared, and yet Benny threatens to do just that—on Christmas Eve, no less!—if they can’t pay the rent. Benny, you see, married into money and is now the owner of the tenement where Mark and Roger live. He hopes to build on the adjacent vacant lot that is currently filled with a homeless encampment, a plan that Mark’s super-dramatic ex-girlfriend Maureen (Kelsee Sweigerd) plans to protest with a little help from her new girlfriend Joanne (Samantha Mbolekwa), a protest Benny wants Mark to stop. As Mark tries to play peacemaker, Roger encounters Mimi (Aiyana Smash), an exotic dancer and junkie who falls for Roger hard; Roger feels the same, but resists because of his recent HIV diagnosis. Mark and Roger’s friend Tom Collins (Shafiq Hicks) comes to visit and is mugged on their doorstep, but is surprisingly swept off his feet by Angel (Joshua Tavares), a drag queen who offers him comfort and who shares his HIV-positive status. The protest occurs, a riot ensues, and all of the different dramatic arcs collide. While the first act explores a single day in fine detail, the second act sprawls out to cover the ensuing year, leaping through the months to show where all of these story arcs go, a dramatic mix of death and loss and rebirth and redemption that all come full circle by the following Christmas Eve.
It’s at this point that I should probably point out that I walked into the theater with only the barest knowledge of what Rent was all about: its historical importance, its humongous popularity, its revolutionarily diverse cast, its exploration of the AIDS epidemic, that song about how many minutes are in a year that you probably have stuck in your head now without me even directly quoting the lyrics. But even coming in with a mostly blank slate, it was easy to get swept up, thanks primarily to the songs. Rent is musical theater in the purest sense of the word: spoken dialogue is sparse, while virtually everything is communicated to the audience through song. The songs are mostly short and come flying in rapid-fire succession, the better to flit between the many crisscrossing characters and plotlines.
The aforementioned “Seasons of Love” is far and away the show’s most memorable tune, but the Rent songbook contains many other joys whose appeal largely depends on how invested you are in that particular plot thread. For me, that investment was largely in the romantic storylines. Cummings and Smash ignited fireworks whenever they were onstage, from Mimi’s totally unsubtle attempts at seduction (the slinky “Light My Candle,” the party rocker “Out Tonight”) to Roger putting words to the fear of dying that makes him push her away (the powerful ballad “Will I”), from their first hesitant push forward (“I Should Tell You,” with lyrics that excellently dance around the characters emotions and worries) to putting love into words (“Your Eyes”). Sweigerd was electric, seizing the audience’s attention anytime Maureen took the stage; watching her and Mbolekwa bicker was a true delight, and Mark and Joanne’s duet of commiseration “Tango: Maureen” was a humorous highlight. And it was lovely to watch love bloom between Hicks’ teddy bear-like Collins and Tavares’ flamboyant Angel. The latter two have probably the furthest range to cover, from Angel’s attention-grabbing intro “Today 4 U” (a song so frenetic that Tavares even lost his breath at one point) to the somber “Without You” in the second act.
The least interesting, ironically, are the ostensible lead characters: Mark and Roger, whose rent troubles form the play’s through-line. Roger is a captivating character when swept up in Mimi’s orbit; on his own, his musical ambitions don’t feel at all genuine and some of his decisions seem beyond arbitrary. Even less interesting is Mark, whose attempts at filmmaking (which form something of a framing sequence for the play) seem amateurish and half-hearted. It’s no fault of Jenkins, who is a fine singer and put his all into the material, but I could not tell you what Mark’s story arc is in the second act and not only did I not care how it turned out, I honestly got a little irritated whenever it got brought up because it was taking time away from the parts I did want to see. (Also, for a guy so broke that he can’t pay his rent, Mark wears suspiciously nice sweaters.)
The set design for this 20th anniversary tour was impressive, with one massive, unchanging set (made mostly of steel piping for that industrial look) that convincingly doubled for a wide range of locations, augmented by a handful of what looked like run-of-the-mill cafeteria tables, engineering marvels that stood up to an unreal amount of jumping, dancing, and stomping without flexing in the slightest. The lighting and sound, however, were an occasional cause for frustration. The volume was inconsistent, sometimes whisper quiet and sometimes swelled to earsplitting volume for no discernible reason, and the various voicemails (that form yet another framing device) were frequently distorted to the point of being unintelligible. Lighting-wise, the actors (particularly in the early scenes) were often backlit so their face was in shadow. Actors’ faces carry a lot of emotional weight on the stage, so the lighting choices sometimes blunted the play’s intended effect.
A few minor irritations aside, it’s easy to understand why Rent inspires the devotion it does in its fans and why it has earned its long life despite being very much a work of its time. (Just look at all those payphones and answering machines!) The cast and crew of this anniversary edition did the show proud, which bodes well for next year when the 20th anniversary magically turns into its 25th. | Jason Green