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: https://www.bochcenter.org/buy/show-listing/rent-2019

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