Thursday, June 8, 2017

Rent Celebrates 20 Years at the Orpheum

Can you believe Tuesday is the first time I've ever seen Rent on stage? 


Photo by Carol Rosegg

I know, I know. How is it possible that a young theater reviewer has somehow bypassed THE musical that ushered in our modern age of new works?

But it's true, so I was excited to check out how Rent holds up 20 years after it made its debut. An overall glance? This show is a little dated - but in a good way - and the audience couldn't have loved it more.

Photo by Carol Rosegg

Rent, for the fellow uninitiated, is about a group of friends living in New York City at the end of the 1990s. They're a hodge podge collection of freaks and geeks, renegade artists, drag queens and activists who share romance, homes, parties, and diseases; many of the characters suffer from AIDS, a fact that was revelatory at the time Rent opened. There's not really an overarching plot line (other than the across the board avoidance of paying their rent and protesting The Man). Instead, Rent reads more like a Dear Diary entry of sorts, with periodic episodes throughout one year (usually on major holidays) that detail what the gang is up to at that time. The music is similarly stream of consciousness, with most songs blending into each other in a conversational, Millennial operetta.

Photo by Carol Rosegg

This Rent features an energetic, very young cast filled with the trademark diversity that helped Rent become such a sensation when it first opened. Although they can be a little pitchy across the board, I will say that it was so refreshing (still! 20 years later!! come on Broadway!!!) to see such a truly representational cast that covers every demographic, both racial and sexual, you can come to think of. Kaleb Wells leads the cast as the fiery Roger Davis. Wells exudes the ethos of an enlightened metalhead, and his bellowing voice and moody duds truly encapsulate the emo-heavy ethos of the post-Nirvana late 1990s. Aaron Harrington has an ethereal bass voice as the loving Tom Collins, and many of Harrington's solos are the highlights of the whole show. Joanne Jefferson, played by Jasmine Easler, is a lovely female foil to Harrington with an equally rich voice. And David Merino was the clear crowd favorite as the incandescent drag queen Angel, the true beating heart of Rent's plotline.

Photo by Carol Rosegg

The music was honestly a little muddy to me, with much of it blending together and some of the lyrics hard to understand. I don't think this is a problem for those who have seen Rent many times before, but it may be worth noting for first-timers. There are still several lovely pieces, usually when the whole cast gets on stage to sing together. In particular the poignant "Contact, "I'll Cover You," and an astonishingly beautiful "Seasons of Love" are all musical standouts. The set and costumes are pretty par for the course, all featuring Rent's trademark grunge-meets-Spice Girls aesthetic, and are sure to be nostalgic for any long-term fans (or those who were the youth of the 90s).

Photo by Carol Rosegg

Overall, how does Rent hold up to someone with fresh eyes? It's honestly a little dated, but in a really good way. It's hard to overstate how revolutionary Rent was when it was first released in 1997; even today the diverse and pan-sexual cast is still a rarity on major stages. Many detailed elements, such as the presence of a drag queen, lesbian kisses and an open discussion of AIDS, don't strike the same shock value as they did 20 years ago thanks to RuPaul, Orange is the New Black, and medical advances that have turned AIDS from a killer into a manageable disease. Those are all very GOOD thing, and they signify a cultural shift that would not have occurred without at least some help from the original Rent. And it was fascinating to see how much love (truly some of the loudest cheering I've heard in the Orpheum yet) the audience exuded throughout the show. Rent is clearly a piece that is having a renewed cultural relevance and signifies an important point of development for many people. This is not the best musical cast I've ever seen on stage, but boy do they have a lot of heart and energy. If you're a true Rent fan I think you'll find this walk down memory lane a very fun one. Rent runs through June 11 at the Orpheum Theater; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.