Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of When the Shark Bites: Hauptmann & Brecht, Lenya & Weill
Rent is deeply adored by its legions of fans, many of whom were in the audience here on opening night, cheering for beloved characters from the moment they appeared on stage and for favorite songs from their first chord. If that sounds like your feelings about Rent, nothing I have to say is likely to matter, for you already have your tickets and will have a fantastic time reliving all there is to love about this show. For those, like myself, who deeply admire and are greatly moved by the work, but don't have the tendency to erupt into spasms of ecstasy throughout the performance, I can happily report that the show remains a powerful tribute to the search for truth, beauty and love in a world in which greedy financiers, crass media mogul, and detached politicians have their tight fists on society's reins.
This touring production is still under the direction of Evan Ensign and based on Michael Greif's original staging of the musical in both its Off-Broadway and Broadway debuts. Based with surprising fidelity on Puccini's opera La Bohème, which premiered in Turin 100 years before Rent first took to the stage, the show remains tightly paced, with intricate storytelling through its, book, score and dance. The first act traces intersecting paths of several young bohemiansartists, drug-users and political activistsin New York City's East Village during the early 1990s, for whom paying rent represents the constant control of the moneyed class. They flaunt this obligation as readily as many of the other standards inscribed by polite society. The entire act plays out over one evening, an eventful Christmas Eve.
The second act takes place over the course of the year that follows, opening with the entire cast standing across the stage singing the beautiful anthem "Seasons of Love," counting out for us the 525,600 minutes that compose a year. It's a massive number of moments, yet a number that flies by all too quickly as Rent's eight principal characters come to grips with facing choices that insert value into those passing minutes, which, as the song suggests, in the end are measured by their quantum of love. It incorporates to a degree the maturation of its characters, along with its affirmation of taking the high road in life, and embracing the gift of love when it appears before you. In all, it's a beautiful and powerful sentiment that leaves us with a sense of uplift and empowerment in spite of the heartache that precedes it.
As this tour is into its third year, many new cast members have come aboard, and many are making their first appearances in a national tour. Together, they make for a strong ensemble cast, especially vibrant when melding soaring voices with perpetual motion in the title song and the act one closer, "La Vie Bohème." The two young, impoverished artists who open the story, Cody Jenkins as filmmaker Mark, and Coleman Cummings rock guitarist Roger, make likely best friends and roommates, with that sense of knowing each other better than they know themselves. Cummings has a strong voice with a glaze of roughness totally suited for such songs of longing as "One Song Glory" and "Your Eyes," and "Without You," a duet with the girl he cannot bear to love, Mimi, a junkie and S&M club dancer played with ferocity by Aiyana Smash. Smash and Cummings make a terrific pair in a drug users' version of "meet cute," "Light My Candle," and spar with equal force in "Another Day." On her own, Smash tears down the house with her cry to go "Out Tonight".
Kelsee Sweigard is dynamite as Maureen, the out-there performance artist who turns the heads of all the boys and the girls. This is the role that made Idina Menzel a star, and Sweigard dives into it with full force. She does a great job with Maureen's protest performance piece "Over the Moon" and with "Take Me or Leave Me," a tell-it-like-it-is musical argument with her on-off girlfriend Joanne. In the latter role, Samantha Mbolekwa brightly shares the acerbic "Tango Maureen" with Jenkins.
Shafiq Hicks is persuasive as the MIT grad student cum activist Tom Collins, casting a personal warmth among his East Village friends, and delivering a stunning "Cover Me" in a soulful reprise where the up-tempo love song becomes a pledge that love will prevail over loss. Joshua Tavares appears a bit reserved as the drag queen Angel, giving an energetic take on "Today 4 U" but without the charisma that explains why everyone is so drawn to him. Completing the principal actors, Juan Luis Espinal plays Benny, once Mark and Roger's roommate, who cashed in by way of an upwardly mobile marriage and now is poised to turn his former friends out on the street. Espinal gives the role a softer touch than others I have seen, making it a bit hard to believe he would be so unyielding to his old friends.
Marlies Yearby's choreography continues to capture the hot, restless energy of youth challenging the world they are about to inherent, impatient with the old order and searching for truth. Musical director Mark Binns leads a great sounding five-piece orchestra, though the sound mix too often favors the musicians at the expense of allowing the lyrics to clearly come through, especially in the more raucous numbers. The bare-bones, abstract setting by Paul Clay, adapted for this tour by Matthew E. Maraffi, costumes by Angela Wendt, and lighting by Jonathan Spencer continue to serve Rent very well.
Larson's characters live amid the scourge of the AIDS epidemic, a death threat both to gay men and to needle users. Puccini's characters face the parallel threat of disease brought on by hunger and cold among the impoverished artists he depicts. However, Larson depicts a world far more diverse than Puccini may have imagined, with characters who are white, black and brown, and who among them are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans.
Even since Larson's time, our baseline has changed. In the twenty-three years since Rent opened, same sex marriage has become legal, and surely two men or two women openly affectionate in an East Village cafe would not raise eyebrows, nor would a church pastor in New York City hurl a derisive epithet at a gay man. Indeed, the character who draws the most "entrance applause" from the audience is Angel, which I took as a sign not only of the character's generous and loving nature and sharp wit, but also of the current moment's surging support for trans individuals among progressive communities that constitutes a large share of Rent's audience. One can celebrate the areas in which society has changed to be more open and inclusive, while recognizing the many ways in which Rent continues to depict social ills, such as the issue of low-income housing and drug addiction.
For how many years will this Rent continue to be due? Will there be a 40th Anniversary Tour of Rent? Will it by then be viewed as a period piece? Hard to say, but for now, twenty years in, it continues to surge with an incendiary mix of anger and hope, creative energy and dissipated loss, that provides an apt view of urban youth flailing against the status quo, with no real status of their own to fill the void. It is powerful, smart, extremely entertaining, and packed with heart.
Rent, through August 18, 2019, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $40.00 - $136.00. For ticket information call 800-982-2787 or visit 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; Choreography: Marlies Yearby; Set Design: Paul Clay; Costume Design: Angela Wendt; Lighting Design: Jonathan Spencer; Sound Design: Keith Caggiano; Original Concept and Additional Lyrics: Billy Aronson; Dramaturg: Lynn M. Thompson; Musical Arrangements: Steve Skinner; Music Supervision and Additional Arrangements: Tim Weil; Musical Director: Mark Binns; Set Design Adaptation: Matthew E. Maraffi; Casting: Wojcik | Seay Casting; Production Stage Manager: Gabrielle Morris; Production Manager: Rhys Williams; Associate Director: Trey Ellett; Associate Choreographer: Miri Park.
Cast: Zare Anguay(Paul/others), Coleman Cummings (Roger Davis), Juan Luis Espinal (Benjamin Coffin III), Michael Ferlitta (Gordon/The Man/Mr. Grey/others), Rayla Garske (Mrs. Jefferson /Woman with Bags/"Seasons of Love" soloist/others), Lexi Greene (Mark's Mom/others), Shafiq Hicks (Tom Collins), Ysabel Jasa (Alexi Darling/Roger's Mom/others), Cody Jenkins (Mark Cohen), Samantha Mbolekwa (Joanne Jefferson), Benjamin H. Moore (Christmas Caroler/Mr. Jefferson/Pastor/ others), James Schoppe (Steve/ Man with Squeegee/Waiter/others), Aiyana Smash (Mimi Marquez), Kelsee Sweigard (Maureen Johnson), Joshua Tavares (Angel Schunard).