Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Rent, the rock musical that in 1996 made it cool again to go to a Broadway show, is now a 20th anniversary tour. It remains a great show in every waymusic, book, staging, design and performances. The fact that many of the adoring audience were young children when Rent burst out in 1996 attests to the fact that it was not simply a laser sharp portrait of its time and place, but a work that touches the human spirit in a more timeless way.
Like his characters in Rent, Jonathan Larson was a "starving artist" living in New York City's East Village in 1989 when a friend suggested an update of La Bohéme, Puccini's opera about a group of struggling artists, intellectuals, and free thinkers in Paris during the 1830s. French youth of that era lived in the shadow of havoc wrought by the French Revolution, Napoleonic wars, and the failed June Uprising of 1832, a backdrop for Les Misérables. The 1980s U.S. was weighted by the legacies of Vietnam and Watergate, and the onset of AIDS. Conservative government and trickle-down economics left artists, intellectuals, and free thinkers increasingly marginalized. The parallels between the two eras made the idea a stroke of genius, and Larson clearly was the right person to take on the work.
After several years of development, Rent was scheduled to open Off-Broadway in winter 1996, one hundred years after La Bohéme premiered. The night before its first preview at the New York Theater Workshop, Larson died of a sudden aortic dissection. Despite the pall cast over the enterprise, the show went on, earning rapturous reviews and the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. By the end of the season it had leapt to Broadway where it won the Tony Award (among many others) for Best Musical and ran for twelve years.
Last month, I saw Minnesota Opera's wonderful staging of La Bohéme. The degree to which Rent followed the opera's characters and plot is striking. In both works, impoverished characters suffer without heat and food, and face the scorn of government and economic forces. Large and small plot details are cleverly aligned. However, Rent adds the afflictions of drug addiction and AIDS to the plotline. La Bohéme's Mimi is ill with consumption, but half of the eight principal characters in Rent are HIV positive and two are addicts. Rent shows a world that is darker, with greater personal risks. Perhaps the world has grown more dangerous, or perhaps we were able to be more honest in the 1996 than in 1896.
Rent also differs from the opera in that half of the principals are gay or bisexual. Doubtless there were many gay Bohemians in 1830s Paris, but to depict them would have been beyond the pale for Puccini. That taboo was gone for Jonathan Larson. He imbued his characters with positive qualities, along with their personal flaws, just like anyone else. They are not "gay characters," but characters who happen to be gay. The first act ends with the celebratory song "La Vie Bohéme," an affirmation of living true to one's self, and of all those who have challenged society's constraints.
The group of East Villagers we meet in Rent are songwriter Roger, who has AIDS and is a recovering junkie; his roommate Mark, a video/film maker whose girlfriend Maureen recently left him for a woman; Mimi, an exotic dancer who has AIDS and is a junkie, still using; Tom Collins, Roger and Mark's friend, a mathematician working against the system who is gay and HIV positive; Angel, a musician and cross dresser who falls in love with Collins and has AIDS; performance artist Maureen, who is Mark's former girlfriend; and Joanne, a lawyer who is Maureen's current girlfriend. The outsider is Benny, a former roommate of Roger and Mark who married a wealthy girl from the suburbs, purchased the hovel in which Roger and Mark still live, and is now their landlord.
The entire first act takes place on Christmas Eve, as Roger and Mimi meet, Collins and Angel meet, Benny tells Roger and Mark if they don't get caught up on their rent, he will have to evict them, Maureen performs at a protest rally held on the vacant lot next door (that Benny also owns) which has been occupied by homeless squatters, and Maureen and Joanne argue over Maureen's flirtations with other women. Remarkable songs accompany first meets and express frustrations, aspirations, yearnings, anger, fears, and love. There are also musical moments for denizens of the streets who are not "Bohemians"panhandlers put-out by the artists who have volunteered for a lifestyle that includes poverty. To reinforce this notion, we hear answering machine messages from Mark's and Joanne's parents, letting us know that there is a safety net for them (albeit, clueless to their children's values) should worse come to worse.
The second act opens with the life affirming anthem "Seasons of Love," song by the entire cast at the edge of the stage. It is not integrated into the narrative, but sets up the rest of the act, which runs through the four seasons, ending on the Christmas Eve one year later. Along the way, Roger and Mimi struggle to keep a relationship going with several strikes against them, Mark struggling to accomplish his work without selling out, Maureen and Joanne breaking apart over jealousies and possessiveness, and Collins and Angel facing the final ravages of disease. The year is a painful journey, as living without roots or guide posts takes a toll on the group. We see them through with hope for their dreams to endure, with stirring songs accompanying each segment of their journeys.
Evan Ensign directs this 20th anniversary tour, based on Michael Greif's direction of the original production. While the show is the same, it feels like the intensity has been ratcheted uphard as that is to believe. The actors speak and move with more conviction, the dancing (with original choreographer Marlies Yearby returned for this tour) seems speeded up, flying from the scaffolding and off the drab long tables (set adapted by Matthew E. Maraffi from Paul Clay's original) more daring and defiant than ever, as if striving to keep up with the ever accelerating pace of our lives.
Every member of the cast excels. Kaleb Wells is wounded and petulant as Roger, reduced to pain by the losses he has suffered for love and art, and his raspy voice is perfect for "One Song Glory" and "Your Eyes." Danny Harris Kornfeld has a sweet "bar mitzvah boy on the wild side" demeanor that perfectly suits Mark's character. David Merino conveys sass and love as Angeland kills his number "Today 4 U." Aaron Harrington conveys mischief and warmth as Tom Collins. His reprise of "I'll Cover You" is an emotional peak. As Mimi, Skyler Volpe sings and dances with sensuous ferocity, rocking the house down with "Out Tonight", then bringing it down to a heart-searing moan with Well's Roger in "Without You." The only issue is that Volpe seems so strong and spirited throughout, that it is hard to believe other characters when they begin to say she is looking pale and thin. Katie Lamark seals the deal as Maureen, pulling off the absurd performance piece "Over the Moon" and wailing away in her duet with Jasmine Easler's Joanne (who holds her own wailing right back at her), "Take Me or Leave Me." Christian Thompson does a great job as Benny, the friend who moved on to another life but still wants to fit in with the old gang.
Larson created a score that sounds like today's musicmusic of the street, music of the airwaveswhile also sounding like show tunes. The original musical arrangements by Steve Skinner still sound fresh, engulfing the house in sound, especially under Samuel Bagala's buzzed up musical direction. Angela Wendt's original costume designs still work to bring out each character's unique qualities. Lighting and sound have been updated by Jonathan Spencer and Keith Caggiano, respectively, contributing to a show that engages the audience from the first chord to the final bow.
The passing of twenty years has not diminished Rent's message, the yearning to live an authentic life rooted in now, given a disappointing past and uncertain future. The show is as timely, as skillfully wrought, and as entertaining as ever, and still sends out a plea for hope, acceptance and understanding that will never be out of date.
Rent runs through June 11, 2017, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: $39.00 - $139.00*.* For ticket information call 800-982-2787 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.rentontour.net.
Book: Music and Lyrics: Jonathan Larson; Director: Evan Ensign, based on Original Direction by Michael Greif; Set Design: Paul Clay; Costume Design: Angela Wendt; Lighting Design: Jonathan Spencer; Sound Design: Keith Caggiano; Choreography: Marlies Yearby; Original Concept and Additional Lyrics: Billy Aronson; Dramaturg: Lynn M. Thompson; Musical Arrangements: Steve Skinner; Music Supervision and Additional Arrangements: Tim Weil; Musical Director: Samuel Bagalia; Set Design Adaptation: Matthew E. Maraffi; Casting: Joy Dewing Casting; Production Stage Manager: Jane Marie Davis; Production Manager: Rhys Williams; Producer: Nancy Gabriel
Cast: Bryson Bruce (Christmas caroler, Mr. Jefferson, pastor and others), Jasmine Easler (Joanne Jefferson), Sammy Ferber (Gordon, The Man, Mr. Grey and others), Aaron Harrington (Tom Collins), Alia Hodge (Mrs. Jefferson, woman with bags, others), Danny Harris Kornfeld (Mark Cohen), Katie Lamark (Maureen Johnson), Natalie Lipin (Mark's mom and others), Jordon Long (Steve, man with squeegee, waiter, others), Timothy McNeill (Paul and others), David Merino (Angel Schunard), Futaba Shioda (Alexi Darling, Roger's mom and others), Christian Thompson (Benjamin Coffin III), Skyler Volpe (Mimi Marquez), Kaleb Wells (Roger Davis).