Review: RENT Rocks At Baltimore's Theatre Project AND M & T Bank Exchange

See The Iconic Rock Opera In Baltimore - Extended Run- February 16, 17 & 18 at M&T Bank Exchange

By: Jan. 30, 2024
Review: RENT Rocks At Baltimore's Theatre Project AND M & T Bank Exchange

Have you had RENT living rent-free in your head since the 2005 movie? Since the ‘96 Broadway opening? Or have you perhaps (gasp) never seen it?

RENT, the iconic 90s rock opera, rocks Baltimore’s Theatre Project to start the year. As produced by Iron Crow, the show highlights the gritty underbelly of New York City’s East village, and the sacrifices made by those who commit to the uncertain incomes and outcomes of the life of a working artist. 

Debuting on Broadway in 1996 a day after the death of its composer and lyricist Jonathan Larson, RENT was immediately hailed as a defining moment in theater. Running for twelve years before closing, earning 10 Tony nominations and four wins, featuring Idina Menzel before she was Elsa, the show has earned its reputation as a game-changer. 

Theatre Project, on Preston Street, is a longtime theatrical venue housed in a challenging historic building. Most folk enter up an outdoor metal staircase and an oak one indoors. A pair of accessibility elevators are available to bypass both. The lobby is packed with people- the performance is sold out. The theater itself is beautiful- a deep black box with a soaring ceiling faced with steeply raked stadium seating with comfy red cushions and armrests with no drink holders, though it appears that beverages are permitted in the theater at this performance. 

Like The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer 500 years before and the Coen brothers’ movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs six hundred years later, Scenes of Bohemian Life (original French title: Scènes de la vie de bohème) by Henri Murger was a collection of stories set in the same time and place, loosely related, but not integrated. 50 years later, Scenes de la vie boheme became La Boheme, a 4 act opera by Italian Giacomo Puccini, premiering in 1896 under the direction of the not-yet renowned Arturo Toscanini. The opera focused on romances between several characters and their storylines were interwoven for the opera in a way that they had not been by Henri Murger

It was around the opera that writer Billy Aronson planned to create a Contemporary Stage musical, bringing onboard Jonathan Larson as composer and lyricist. The pair eventually separated, leaving Larson to finish the project independently. Aronson, now a successful television writer, was credited with the original concept and “additional lyrics.” 

RENT is an assemblage of romantic tragedy interspersed with moments that touch your heart, rattle your nerves or tickle your funny bone, set in the gritty underbelly of New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The show is a tribute to the spirit of people undaunted by poverty, addiction and illness in the face of a very bleak reality. 

 Director Sean Elias’ staging keeps the whole cast  onstage all the time, which permits intriguing group movements and allows Music Director Rachel Sandler to do terrific things with all available voices. The singing is complex, rich, layered with harmonies, performed by a cast whose combined talent creates a lush soundscape that holds the fragmentary sequences together.  The casting choices result in a vocally and physically diverse cast who are both an auditory and a visual delight.

Jeremy Allen Crawford and Carter Crosby, playing Mark and Roger, are excellent separately and together, and it is Crawford’s charm, expressive face and clearly enunciated narrative that stitches together the rapidly paced scenes. Crosby’s mournful face and posture speak to his backstory, and his connection to Natalia Fyfe’s complicated Mimi is convincing. Their first duet, “Will You Light My Candle?” is a lovely number, and in Act II, “Without You” is heartbreaking. Terrell Chambers as Collins moves from tender and explorative in “You Okay Honey?” to passionately enraged in “I’ll Cover You, Reprise.” As Angel, Nicholas Miles is confident enough to carry off ‘drag’ without elaborate costuming, and is vocally compelling. Anwar Thomas as Benji has a smooth voice, is not entirely unsympathetic, and deftly manages an issue with his mic without missing a beat. Playing Maureen, Rachel Cahoon sells the seductive character and her performance art sequence is everything you think about performance art, and then some. Her duet with Breanne Sensenig’s Joanne, “Take Me Or Leave Me” is sensational. As Joanne, Sensenig is simply amazing and her powerful voice is reason enough to see the show. Her number with Jeremy Allen Crawford as Mark, “Tango: Maureen” is one of the highlights of Act II for me.

Rounding out the cast is the Ensemble: Landon Black, Jessica Ramon, Sam Slottow, Tyler White and Teddy Wright, who each get some nice featured moments. Tyler White’s breakdance moves are flashy and too short-lived; Jessica Ramon is overly perky as Alexi Darling. Live music is provided by 5 or 6 talented musicians, conducted by Catina McLagan, who are encircled by set structures very far upstage and they kick it in high gear. 

Set Designer Thomas Jenkeleit gives us an over-the-top warehouse grunge feel without set pieces that can be easily identified as “set pieces.” The set gives the impression of being an overcrowded, dank basement in which some project or renovation happens in perpetuity. The haze that coats the stage makes an excellent 3-D scrim for the dazzling lighting created by Lighting Designer Thomas P. Gardner. The special spots are effective, mood washes are moody, and I rather wish I could see the show again just to look more at the lighting. 

Wardrobe by Costume Designer Camille Lerner is classic 80s/90s grunge, which oddly doesn’t strike me as a ‘dated’ look. Each character has a distinct style, quite helpful at the beginning as the audience works to learn their names and identities.

In lieu of a run crew, the actors themselves frequently move chairs and other pieces around for the sequences. They also sit, lie down and stand on them. In all there are nearly twenty people onstage, most of them moving most of the time. The melodies keep recurring and overlapping, and there’s a great deal of shouting. RENT is an overwhelming swirl of light, action, sound and emotion, and it should be a discordant cacophony, but instead it’s a gorgeous chaos. Whether you’ve never seen RENT, or seen it innumerable times, this one is definitely worth a trip downtown.

Running time is 3 hours, with one 15 minute intermission; tickets prices range $35- $65.00.  

Iron Crow’s RENT at Theatre Project runs Fridays through Sundays January 19th through February 4th. Performances are at 8 PM on Friday and Saturday, 2 PM on Saturday and 4 PM on Sunday. 

Theatre Project, 45 West Preston Street, Baltimore, MD 21201; 410-539-3091

Covid Precautions: masks are welcome but not required; expect crowded situations

Photo: Carter Crosby and Jeremy Allen Crawford as Roger and Mark in RENT; Photo Credit:  Wilson Freeman 

 Purchase tickets online.

NEW NEWS about this show: In a move perhaps unprecedented in the Baltimore theater scene, RENT extends its run, but moves its venue to become the very first show presented at the new M & T Bank Exchange venue in the Hippodrome space.

  • Friday, February 16, 2024, at 8:00 PM
  • Saturday, February 17, 2024, at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM 
  • Sunday, February 18, 2024, at 1:00 PM and 6:30 PM

Buy tickets through Iron Crow Theatre.

Final Factoid: Picture it: England, 1396. Chaucer is writing The Canterbury Tales. 500 years later, in 1896, Scenes of Bohemian Life is published in France by Henri Murger. 50 years later, in 1946, Puccini opened his opera, La Boheme in Italy. In 1996, 50 years after Puccini and 600 years after Chaucer,  RENT premiered on Broadway in New York City, USA.