Review: Jonathan Larson's RENT Rocks at Garden Theater

Larson's masterpiece still holds up after multiple viewings

By: Oct. 17, 2022
Review: Jonathan Larson's RENT Rocks at Garden Theater
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Shortly before the curtains were pulled open on the Short North Stage's production of RENT on Oct. 15, a member in the Garden Theater audience confessed to her friend this was her ninth time seeing the Jonathan Larson-penned musical.

When her companion pressed for an explanation, the theatergoer simply smiled and said, "I'm a bit obsessed."

After the curtain call at the end of the show, her friend seemed to understand that fixation. RENT performances are a bit like snowflakes. No two are exactly the same. And Short North Stage's cast, energy, and staging makes sure the audience enjoys the show, whether it is their first time seeing it or their ninth.

RENT runs Oct. 6 through Nov. 6 at the Garden Theater (1187 N. High Street in downtown Columbus).

Larson's masterpiece is set in the 1990s in the East Village of New York City. Struggling filmmaker Mark Cohen (played by Lake Wilburn) decides to document the struggle he and his roommate Roger Davis (Daniel Lopez) go through to produce art in a crumbling tenement apartment in the Big Apple. His film captures much more than he bargained for, encapsulating the besieged artistic community coming to grips with AIDS, drug addiction, and poverty.

Wilburn's angst, yet hopeful Mark is paired off against Lopez's pessimistic, self-defeating Roger in the scorching opening number "Rent" and the final confrontation between the two, "What You Own."

While the story is told through Roger's lens, RENT, when it is done correctly, is a true ensemble show. Perhaps that is why people come back to see it again and again. One could focus on a single character and see something different about the role each actor brings to it.

A case in point would be J'Quay Gibbs' portrayal of Angel, a drag queen whose giving spirit is the heart and soul of the show. Gibbs brought some interesting nuances to the character. For example, when Angel tries to break up an argument between Roger and Mimi (Lisa Glover), Gibbs starts out with the character's high-pitched voice and then suddenly downshifts into a louder, deeper tone which catches the characters off guard. It is subtle, and if one blinks, he or she could miss it. It was something that might make a nine-show veteran of the show chuckle.

In a show about love, the relationship between Angel and Tom Collins (AJ Lockhart) is the closest thing to a healthy relationship. Lockhart, a holdover from TICK, TICK ... BOOM! that SNS did last month, and Gibbs complement each other in their duets on "You Okay, Honey?" "I'll Cover You," and "Santa Fe."

Each one of the main characters are in love with something/someone, even the ones who aren't paired up with another actor on stage. Mark is in love with his work, and greedy landlord Benjamin Coffin III (Jordan Young) is in love with money.

The on-again, off-again pairing of Roger and Mimi embark on a sexual, lust-driven relationship but it evolves into something more by the end of the show. Glover and Lopez radiate sexual tension in "Light My Candle," heat in "Out Tonight," and then convert those elements into longing in "Without You," and compassion in "Your Eyes."

The romance between Maureen (Sydney Freihofer) and Joanne (Amanda Lee) thrives on friction. Freihofer seems to relish displaying her inner diva, especially with her over-the-top embellishments to "Over The Moon." Lee's Joanne is a powerbroker lawyer who is sucked into the vortex of Maureen's spell. Every time she thinks she has broken things off with Maureen, she gets pulled back in. The two's angry duet in "Take Me or Leave Me" is another one of the show's highpoints.

However, director Chari Arespacochaga and choreographer Dionysia Williams show the strength of RENT remains in the powerhouse ensemble pieces like "Support Group," "La Vie Boheme," and the incomparable "Seasons of Love," which still pulls on the heartstrings and makes arm hairs rise even after multiple viewings of the show. The supporting cast of Cindy Tran Nguyen, Marshawn Clodfelter, Sermontee Brown, Ryan Shreve, Cory Velazco, Tim Lawrence, Mikaela Ray, and Arriah Ratanapan are not just props or background players but complete Larson's painting.

Williams' choreography and Arespacochaga's staging finds the humor in "Christmas Bells" and "Voicemail" vignettes, the power in "Will I?" and the chaos in "Rent" and "La Vie Boheme."

Conductor Jonathan Collura directs the band of J. Damon Barnett (guitar), Olivia Conley (guitar/keyboards), Mendell Hibbard (bass) and Will Mayer (drums), who add clarity and harmony to the two-and-a-half-hour show.

The cast and crew of this production collaborate and combine these elements to keep RENT set apart from other musicals, even if it is one's first or ninth time seeing it.


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