Jonathan Larson’s retelling of the Puccini opera La Bohème began celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2016 when Rent took to the road once again, the first time since a national tour in 2009. The story focuses on a group of friends and acquaintances living — existing would be a better word — in the East Village of New York City. We first meet Mark and Roger in their space with no heat and stolen electricity right before Christmas. Their former roommate Benny now owns the building and the adjacent property and has come to collect last year’s rent, which they don’t have and which they were promised they would never have to pay. But Benny will allow Mark and Roger to live there, rent free, if they stop a protest by one of their friends, Maureen, focused on Benny’s plans to evict homeless people from his properties.
Many more characters and relationships enter into the story most notable Mimi, an addict and a neighbor of Roger and Mark, who takes a liking to Roger. Roger has a dark and tragic secret though … he has AIDS and his former girlfriend who gave him the news committed suicide. But Mimi reveals that she too has the infection, complicating their relationship even more (and she has another secret too regarding another man in her life). We also meet Tom Collins, who is mugged upon his arrival in town, but taken in by Angel, a gay street performer/drag queen, who feels an instant connection with Tom … and they too are infected with the deadly virus but this time the disease brings them together, happily in love. We also meet Joanne, who is now dating Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen, complicating their lives when Maureen asks Mark to help Joanne with some audio equipment for a performance.
Rent is a very deep and complicated show, presenting the lives of these characters as they endure the ups and downs of life and love. It’s also not a bright, shiny Broadway musical. Things do take a very dark, emotional turn in Act II that affects everyone and nearly tears the group apart. If your life has been touched in some way by the ravages of the AIDS epidemic, this show will hit very close to home. I lost one of my oldest friends to the disease in 2008, and it’s something I’ve dealt with but never really gotten over. This show reopened some old wounds but has also allowed me to grieve, something I’ve never really had a chance to do (not that I wanted to sit in a crowded theatre and sob, but it was a bit cathartic as many others were going through the same emotions). It has a heavy message but we are left with hope at the end.
Rent is staged on a single set, designed by Paul Clay, with various props and furniture moved in to represent different locations and it all has an appropriately grungy look. Jonathan Spencer’s lighting design is perfect, never too bright, giving us the feel of the dingy locations. The sound design by Keith Caggiano is crisp and clear, something of a necessity when the entire ensemble is singing different songs at the same time.
And what an ensemble this is. Danny Harris Kornfeld’s Mark is the centerpiece of the show, the cog around which everyone else rotates. Mark serves as our narrator and observer with his trusty movie camera always in hand (the show takes place before everyone had a video camera on their phones), and Kornfeld keeps our focus with his performance and powerful voice. Kaleb Wells (Roger) also has an amazing voice, belting out the show’s more rock numbers, giving Roger a very complicated set of emotions especially in how he deals with Mimi. Skyler Volpe also rocks out as Mimi, managing to make us feel sympathy for her even as she begins to descend not only into her disease, but into her addiction as well. Aaron Harrington’s Tom is almost the counter to everyone else, full of life, happiness and love, no matter the circumstances, and his voice is as smooth as silk. Jasmine Easler and Katie Lamark, as Joanne and Maureen, are also perfection with Joanne being the uptight control freak and Maureen being the free spirited control freak. Lamark has one of the funniest moments of the show when Maureen launches into a bit of performance art about a cow, encouraging the entire audience to moo along with her. Christian Thompson’s Benny is the show’s villain and he is also terrific.
But, the real shining light of this show is newcomer David Merino making his professional debut as Angel. Merino lights up the stage every time he’s on, with a great voice and some amazing dance moves. Merino makes the most of the role, and I always found my eyes drawn to him just to watch his expressions and body language. But Angel is a bright, shining light that burns out much too soon, but his … or her … legacy is what holds the group together when tragedy tears threatens to tear them all apart. I had an opportunity to meet David after the show, but I was just too emotional to face him. If I had, I would have given him a big hug and told him what that performance meant to me (so David, if you’re reading this I just want to say thank you for your beautiful work).
Rent is wall-to-wall music (with a terrific five-piece orchestra on stage) with very little spoken dialog (the movie adaptation actually turned some of the songs into spoken dialog). The score itself may not be all that familiar as it tells its story, but the second act does open with the show’s most well-known song, “Seasons of Love”, performed by the entire cast lined up across the front of the stage. It’s the first time they take this position and when they do it again later in the act, it becomes all the more poignant when one of them is missing. If you’re looking for a light-hearted evening at the theatre, Rent may not be the show for you (the couple sitting next to me did not return for the second act). However, if you want something to challenge you, to make you think, to make you angry, to break your heart and to give you hope, then Rent is the perfect show for you.
Rent is currently at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre through Sunday, April 2. Future stops include Providence, Boston, York, New Haven, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Memphis, Washington DC and more! You can find the tour dates on the show’s website, or check our Ticketmaster link for ticket availability in your city. Any purchase through our link helps support Hotchka.com.
Rent runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.
You can find the tour dates on the show’s website, or check our Ticketmaster link below for ticket availability in your city.