RENT - 20th Anniversary Tour
After two decades it remains impossible not to cheer and sing along to "RENT," Jonathan Larson's rock opera reimagining of "La Boheme."
Larson re-sets the story to New York City in the 1990s, a time when AZT was offering a glimmer of hope to those living with HIV. The bohemians of the piece include Mark (Danny Harris Cornfield) and Roger (Kaleb Wells), a filmmaker and musician respectively, who are living rent-free (or squatting, as it turns out) in an old building owned by their frenemy Benny (Christian Thompson). Also in the building: Mimi (Skyler Volpe), a beautiful but troubled heroin user who takes a shine to Roger when a power outage brings her to his door with a candle in need of lighting.
Roger and Mimi and more in common than they first realize, both having contracted HIV thorough intravenous drug use. While Roger navigates both his passions -- the song he's trying to write and the nascent love affair he's hesitant to embark on thanks to his HIV status -- roommate Mark has romantic problems of his own: Mark's ex, a performance artist named Maureen (Kate Lamark), has left him for another woman. When Maureen's Christmas Eve performance piece needs some technical expertise, new girlfriend Joanne (Jasmine Easler) has to rely on Mark for help, which gives the two of them a chance to bond over their shared love for, and frustrations with, the mercurial Maureen.
Meantime, love has also found Roger and Mark's old friend Tom Collins (Aaron Harrington), who, after being mugged, is rescued by a HIV-positive street musician (and drag queen) named Angel (David Merino). The two become an instant item.
The action wends from freezing flats to hipster restaurants, support group meetings to a tent city, frozen winter streets -- where drug peddlers and windshield washers alike ply their trades -- to thrift shops, and the story takes a year to unfold -- or, if you please, "Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes."
The 20th Anniversary Tour of "RENT" remains meticulously faithful to the musical, from the set to Evan Ensign's direction, which is "based on Original Direction by Michael Grief," but thankfully that still leaves room for interpretation. If you've seen any, or many, of the eight touring productions (or countless local productions) that have graced the Boston area over the years, you'll feel right at home -- and you won't get a sense of "Oh, this again." After twenty years, "RENT" doesn't feel overly controlled by its past.
Nor is it stuffy or overly concerned with replicating past efforts. Wells' Roger is scruffy -- something I'd not seen before, and I've seen the show plenty of times -- and while Wells isn't as strong a singer as many of his cast mates, he brings a gauntness and pathos that feels new to the role.
But that's a double-edged innovation, as it turns out. Wells barely holds his own against Volpe's Mimi, who seems more a force of nature than damsel in distress. So sure and confident does she seem, in fact, that her later wavering between Roger and Benny doesn't quite work, partly because Thompson's Benny is, similarly, such a vital force on the stage that you can't help wishing he had a bigger role. The upside is that Thompson's sheer force of personality helps sell Benny's constant morphing from opportunistic villain to good guy and faithful friend; by the same token you wonder, given this version of Benny's confident aura, just what the question is for Volpe's similarly authoritative Mimi. What does she want with the petulant and tormented Roger? It's not an answer the text provides, and the performances don't offer any clues; meantime, Roger all but fades into the background and it almost seems a struggle for him to emerge for the scenes in which he features.
But get a load of Maureen! Lamark's portrayal is electric; the character doesn't show up until near the end of Act One, but when she does roll on stage she proves worth the wait (and all the talking up Roger and Joanne have given her). Her tumultuous relationship with Joanne is off the hook; Easler plays Joanne with both the strength she needs to pair well with Lamark, and also the right mix of angry hurt and amorous passion.
For me, any given production of "RENT" rises or falls with its Angel, and David Merino is among the best I've seen. Merino's Angel is, furthermore, well matched with Harrington's Tom Collins. The two become the tender heart of this production, when usually it's the bromance between Mark and Roger that feels like the most palpable, and deepest, bond.
That goes back to the question of presence. Oddly, there are members of the ensemble who exert more command over your attention than the show's nominal leads. Kornfeld's Mark is note-perfect as the show's semi-narrator, the fellow who peers at his friends and the world they inhabit through the lens of a movie camera and creates a document of their joy and strife. But that also means that this version of Mark, while likable, has few moments where he stands out. He meshes well with any other character in a one-on-one, dancing the "Tango: Maureen" with Joanne and having the sort of fight with Roger that only best friends can have, but put him in any other situation and, unless he's narrating through song, you forget he's there.
The show remains strong, however, in large part because it's essentially an ensemble piece, but also because the music has stood the test of time. Hearing these songs in 2017, they sound as fresh and delight as they always did, particularly the "big" numbers like "Rent," "Santa Fe," "Tango Maureen," "Seasons of Love," "La Vie Boheme/I Should Tell You," and the heartbreaking "Will I?"
Time has moved on, bringing those living with HIV near-miraculous drug regimens, offering PrEP to those who are negative, and replacing noisome answerphone messages with texting, or at least the option of leaving a voice message on a cell phone. But this production brings back the magic of discovering anew the show audiences first fell in love with ten million, five hundred twelve thousand minutes ago. This show has seen our community through many a season, of love and otherwise.
"RENT," the 20th Anniversary Tour, continues through April 23 at the Shubert Theatre, Boch Center. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.bochcenter.org/discover/our-theatres/shubert-theatre/shubert-theatre-landing-page