Two Decades Later, ‘Rent’ Is Still Going Strong

Cast of ‘Rent’ at Boch Center/Shubert

by Shelley A. Sackett

‘Rent’ – Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson; Directed by Evan Ensign; Music Supervision and Additional Arrangements by Tim Weil; Choreography by Marlies Yearby; Scenic Design by Paul Clay; Costume Design by Angela Wendt; Lighting Design by Jonathan Spencer; Sound Design by Keith Caggiano. Produced by Work Light Productions at the Shubert Theatre – Boch Center through November 10, 2019.

Rent, the quintessential rock musical loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a full-throated revival at the Shubert Theatre – Boch Center. One of the longest-running shows on Broadway (it ran for 12 years), Rent garnered a shelf full of awards in 1996, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, three Tony Awards and four Drama Desk Awards.

The almost three-hour long production tells the tale of a group of young, penniless artists living in Lower Manhattan’s pre-gentrified East Village. They are determined to remain true to their Bohemian souls despite their struggles with HIV/AIDS, drug addiction and poverty. Their relationships to each other and to the “outside world” form the backbone of the plot. There are so many characters and moving parts, however, that it’s sometimes hard to keep straight who’s with whom. Fortunately, the music is the real star of the show, and after a while it’s easy to let go of the need to really follow every plot twist and just enjoy the powerhouse vocals.

Act I opens with the house lights still up. Whether this is artistically deliberate or merely indulgent of late comers, the effect is an immediate intimacy between the actors and the audience. We meet roommates Mark Cohen (Cody Jenkins), a filmmaker, and Roger Davis (Coleman Cummings), a songwriter and rock musician, on a cold Christmas Eve. Their former roommate Benny Coffin III (Juan Luis Espinal) has gone over to the dark side, marrying a rich girl from Westport whose father owns lots of real estate, including Mark and Roger’s building. Benny originally promised his buddies they didn’t have to worry about being behind in the rent. Now he has changed his tune, threatening to shut off the electricity if they don’t come up with last year’s rent. He also plans to evict the homeless from a nearby lot where he hopes to build a cyber arts studio.

Rounding out the gang are: Tom Collins (Shafiq Hicks) a gay anarchist New York University professor; his cross-dressing drag queen lover, Angel Schunard (the spot-on, scene-stealing Joshua Tavares); and exotic dancer, neighbor and junkie Mimi Marquez (Aiyana Smash, whose acting and singing are a pleasure to behold).

“Rent,” the play’s namesake musical number, is the full company’s response to Benny’s demands. Compared to the pressure of trying to follow “Hamilton’s” lyrics, the song’s simple rhymes and high energy, uncomplicated score are a refreshing relief. Intellectually taxing this show is not.

Meanwhile, Mimi shows up at Roger’s apartment to ask him for a match to light her candle (Benny followed through on his threat to shut off the electricity), and to flirt with him. Their duet, “Light My Candle,” is one of the show’s stand out numbers, Cummings’ voice shadowing and showcasing Smash’s gorgeous pipes.

Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen Johnson (the spectacular Kelsee Sweigard) plans to stage a protest against Benny’s development plans. Her protest is really an over-the-top, avant garde cabaret act (“Over the Moon”), a funky rendition of the nursery rhyme, “Hey! Diddle Diddle.”  Sweigard, part Betty Boop innocence, part vamping torch singer, brings down the house. She is a real gem.

The protest turns into a riot when Benny retaliates by padlocking the apartment building where Mark and Roger live. Mark films the riot, which later leads to a corporate job at Buzzline, which he will eventually leave to follow his dream of making his own independent film.

Act II opens with “Rent’s” gorgeous signature song, “Seasons of Love,” which gives Rayla Garske and Benjamin H. Moore some well-deserved time in the vocal spotlight. The different couples and their coupling and uncoupling are closely followed: Roger and Mimi, Angel and Tom, Mark and his camera, and Maureen and her girlfriend Joanne Jefferson (Samantha Mbolekwa). Maureen and Joanne’s duet, “Take Me or Leave Me,” is tailor made for Sweigard and Mbolekwa, and their performance is hands down the show’s finest.

Written in 1996, “Rent” is certainly dated and its momentum struggles because of it. Many of its lyrics are trite and the score, save a few real stars, is forgettable and, at times, boring and repetitive. Nonetheless, the play’s core messages are still relevant. The menacing specter of HIV/AIDS that hovers over all (and eventually claims Angel) is a reminder of all those lost to a disease that was ignored because the population most at risk was societally and economically marginalized. And, following ones dreams in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles is as daunting today as 20 years ago.

Perhaps the most important message is found in the enviable camaraderie, compassion and shared happiness this group treasures. In “Your Eyes/Finale,” “Rent’s” last musical number, the entire company sings, “There’s only us. There’s only this. Forget regret, or life is yours to miss. No other road, no other way, No day but today.” No matter how little time they themselves have left, when these friends raise their glass in a toast to Angel’s untimely and unnecessary death, you can bet they nonetheless see their glasses as half full, not half empty. For tickets and more information, go to:

Trayf is in Eye of the Beholder in New Rep’s ‘Trayf’

Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver), Zalmy (Ben Swimmer) and Shmuel (David Picariello) in New Rep’s ‘Trayf’

By Shelley A. Sackett

Hasidic teenagers Zalmy and Shmuel, the main characters of the New Repertory Theatre’s “Trayf,” are, at face value, typical 1990s adolescents. They love cruising around New York City in their brand-new van, blasting their favorite music and singing along at the top of their lungs. Their good-natured banter, conversational short cuts and puppy-like rapport reveal a chemistry borne of lifelong friendship. They talk about everything, from music to families to the riddle of sex. Any mother would be proud to claim them as her budding mensches.

Yet, on another level, Zalmy and Shmuel are anything but typical teens. They have never left their insular Crown Heights, Brooklyn community and Manhattan’s secular streets, bejeweled and beckoning with the forbidden (trayf), startle them. In their Chabad-Lubavitch (Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement) uniform of black hats, facial hair and black coats, they hardly blend in. The van they drive is a Mitzvah Tank, a makeshift synagogue-on-wheels with an ice cream truck-like banner that reads, “Mitzvahs on the Spot for People on the Go.” The music they adore is Hasidic pop/rock. These two are not trolling for babes. They have but one mission: to inspire Jews to do mitzvahs. “We’re the Rebbe’s foot soldiers going to battle in the most secular city in the world,” Shmuel solemnly declares.

New York based playwright Lindsay Joelle deftly uses this distinctive community and these two friends as the platform from which she launches her exploration of weighty themes such as commitment, identity, loyalty, tolerance and what being Jewish means (and doesn’t mean) in 21st century America. By nimbly plumbing Zalmy and Shmuel’s rich relationship, she keeps “Trayf” light, comedic and fluid while digging deeply beneath the surface.

During Zalmy’s (Ben Swimmer) and Shmuel’s (David Picariello) chatty drives into the City, their individualiities surface. Shmuel is scandalized by Times Square; Zalmy is intrigued. Shmuel is devoted, resolved and unquestioning. His is a world of bright lines: black and white, kosher and trayf. Zalmy is more open-minded and daring; he can sense the gray of a possible middle ground, and it draws him in.

Swimmer, Picariello

Joelle carefully places this tinderbox of conflict beneath the teens’ friendship. Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver), who approaches the Mitzvah Tank looking for “spiritual belonging,” is the flint that ignites it.

Jonathan is a young man who was raised Catholic. While cleaning out some of his father’s things after his recent death, he came across his birth certificate, showing his father emigrated from Germany and was, in fact, Jewish. Convinced that exploring these Jewish roots will fill the emptiness inside him, he is drawn to the Mitzvah Tank like a drowning man to a life boat.

Zalmy is happy to take Jonathan on as a student, especially after he learns he is a record producer and might be his conduit to secular musical delights. Shmuel is predictably skeptical. “He doesn’t feel like a Jew,” Shmuel says. “Why would anyone pretend to be Jewish?” Zalmy counters.

For the first time in their decades long friendship, Zalmy and Shmuel follow divergent paths. Zalmy takes Jonathan under his wing, bringing him home every week for Shabbos. “You’re so lucky, Zalmy. With your family I feel connected. I feel God,” Jonathan says. Zalmy is just happy to receive some of Jonathan’s secular trayf tapes.

Well into the intermission-less 80-minute production, Jonathan’s Jewish girlfriend Leah Caplan (Kimberly Gaughan) shows up, angry at her goyishe boyfriend’s makeover into a full-blown Chabadnik, hat, beard and all. The granddaughter of survivors, she “knows what it means to be Jewish” and has chosen a Catholic partner on purpose. She has also just courted him through an intense period of mourning and feels betrayed by his sudden change.

Picariello, Kimberly Gaughan as Leah

Leah seems to want more of a therapy session that an intervention from Shmuel, her need more to vent than to be soothed. Shmuel, however, sees a parallel with his relationship with Zalmy and his tone and body language suddenly shift and soften. He tries to comfort and calm her and to get her to see what he is only beginning to embrace and understand. “There is no love, only acts of love,” he tells her, quoting the Rebbe.

From here, the characters’ paths diverge, merge and change course in ways both predictable and surprising. Picariello and Swimmer bring a chemistry and effortlessness to their roles that is helped by Joelle’s character development and dialogue. She is not as successful with Jonathan and Leah. They are two-dimensional, cardboard props, more symbols than flesh and blood. Their role is one of foil rather than relatable people.

Celine Rosenthal’s direction keeps the play moving and her choice to put Zalmy and Shmuel as front and center as the script allows is a wise one. Grace Laubacher’s set is minimal but effective, the Mitzvah Tank its main focal point. The backdrop of a Manhattan skyline has a Marc Chagall shtetl feel, an acknowledgment to Crown Heights as a bridge between the Chabad’s Eastern European birthplace and its modern digs. Whether intentional or not, it’s a nice touch.

For Joelle, “Trayf” is the culmination of over five years’ research that started with her friendship with a former Chabadnik who shared with her how he had “dipped his toe into the secular world” until he finally broke from his roots and embraced a secular life.

She hopes the audience leaves wondering what each character will do next as they embark on their transformative journeys. “I’m most drawn to Shmuel’s newfound understanding that ‘acts of love’ include giving friends space to change and grow, and that true friendship transcends ideological beliefs,” she said.

A version of this review appeared in the Jewish Journal (

“Trayf”. Written by Lindsay Joelle. Directed by Celine Rosenthal. Scenic Design: Grace Laubacher. Lighting Design: Marcella Barbeau. Costume Design: Becca Jewett. Sound Design: Aubrey Dube. Stage Manager: Jenna Worden. Produced by New Repertory Theatre in partnership with Jewish Arts Collaborative, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown through November 3.