BWW Review: Everything is RENT at The Hobby Center

BWW Review: Everything is RENT at The Hobby Center
The Company of the RENT 20th Anniversary Tour. Photo: Carol Rosegg, 2018. (Images may not reflect actors in current production.)

renthead
/ ˈrent(h)ed /
INFORMAL

noun
1. an overzealous or obsessive fan of the musical RENT
"that renthead has seen RENT more than 20 times"
"he is a total renthead and will not shut up about it, please don't invite him over"
"she only writes RENT lyrics in your yearbook, save the space for someone who isn't a renthead"

verb
1. be an overzealous or obsessive fan of the musical RENT.
"society can't define me, as a renthead I measure my life in love"
"Idina Menzel is my spirit animal, don't you dare mention IF/THEN, I am the biggest renthead in the world and I will fight you"

Not everyone is a renthead and that's okay. In fact, it's probably for the best. But in the interest of transparency, as is obnoxiously known to most people in my life, I am, indeed, a renthead. I have seen the show dozens of times and can recite every lyric and will gladly yap about the complexities of Mark's loneliness and speak poetic of Collins' vulnerability but I will not discuss the movie version with you so please stop bringing it up and did I mention that I saw Anthony Rapp getting coffee once and it changed my life?!

As a tried and true renthead, seeing the musical is always a challenging task. You see, the music of the original Broadway cast recording is so deeply ingrained in my mind (or as a proper renthead would say, "a part of my psyche"), that I catch every slight difference, and every miniscule mistake. I'm constantly comparing the current production with that of the original show to the nth degree, such as the colors of Mark's sweater being slightly different from the original, which is okay, just something I happen to notice.

Which brings me to this: the production of RENT 20th Anniversary Tour - currently on stage at The Hobby Center - is the most fulfilling, fabulous and fantastic version of the show I have ever seen outside of New York City.

If my slightly weird/wacky personal narrative wasn't compelling enough, here are additional reasons why you need to see this show:

DIVERSITY

Outside of HAMILTON, which intentionally casts diverse players in order to represent the current landscape of America, I have never seen a touring production include so many actors of varied backgrounds. This matters for many reasons, most poignantly because it accurately reflects the diversity of our great city on stage. And heartwarmingly, when you can see yourself reflected on a stage (of any kind), it's easier to dream that dream for yourself. Hats off to Director Evan Ensign and Wojcik/Seay Casting for their conscious and impactful casting choices.

ACCEPTANCE

Inspired by Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME, RENT chronicles a tumultuous year in the life of seven artists, grappling with their desire to pursue their dreams on their own terms, juxtaposed with their need to make ends meet, managing addiction, living through monumental loss, and the very human struggle to be accepted and loved, just as they are.

While RENT was written and is set in the mid-90's in gritty New York City, the story remains deeply relevant for many reasons, but particularly due to the character of Angel. Angel is a street-percussionist living with HIV, who identifies with both male and female pronouns, and dresses in both stereotypical styles. Angel likes boys, and boys like Angel. Let's remember that society's general understanding of gender vs. sexuality, gender-fluidity, and non-binary has only become mainstream in recent years. In fact, it's only been a mere four years since the US Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage. And yet, the fan-favorite, complex, gentle, kind character of Angel, played magnificently in this production by Joshua Tavares, has been stealing hearts and opening minds of theatre-goers for over two decades. Despite being the most maligned character, Angel is the moral compass of RENT, perpetually leading with love, and demonstrating compassion to all others. Angel was revelatory and remains relevant, and speaks volumes about the power of theatre to transform society and open minds.

THE EXPERIENCE

Jonathan Larson wrote the book, music and lyrics for RENT. Sadly, he passed away the morning of the show's first preview off-Broadway, so he wasn't able to witness the impact of his soon-to-be Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award®-winning rock-opera. But his message of living every day for today reverberates in every aspect of the show.

Ensign assembled a team of masters who made RENT their passion project. Music supervisor Tim Weil, set designer Paul Clay, costume designer Angela Wendt, lighting designer Jonathan Spencer, sound designer Keith Caggiano, choreographer Marlis Yearby, and a host of other tremendous talent didn't exactly recreate the original production for this 20th anniversary tour, but conjured up the same feel designed by Larson and original director Michael Greif.

The set is dirty, the music is loud, and the lighting is sparse, all complimenting but never distracting from the cacophony of emotions playing out on stage. Larson's music and lyrics are impossibly passionate, with loud drums and a crying electric guitar igniting the air with grief, love, joy, and fear. RENT isn't a relaxing experience, you will feel all the feelings, and you will leave inspired to create, to love, to live.

THE ACTORS

Wow.

One of Larson's greatest skills was his ear for harmony, and his ability to convey the complexities of real life through song. This cast honored his legacy.

As Roger, Coleman Cummings delivers an exquisite balance between anger at the world and internalized fear and self-loathing. You can practically see Cummings' heart open and close throughout the show as he struggles with vulnerability and depression. His foil and great love is Mimi, played by the gorgeous and gregarious Aiyana Smash. Her struggle with addiction and desire for more - more of everything: love, friends, drugs, money - is undeniably relatable. She is as loveable as she is heart-wrenching. Together, Cummings and Smash hit every note and every mark.

As Joanne, Samantha Mbolekwa represents everyone in the world. Joanne is at the end of her rope and ready to take a stand against all wrongs. She is powerful, assertive, and action-oriented, and also, just like (most) everyone else in the world, struggles to ask for help, or to admit her weaknesses. Mbolekwa played her with deep compassion and great understanding that people can be all things - though often in opposition - at the same time. Her partner Maureen, played by Kelsee Sweigard, is bold, bawdy and ready to create change now. Sweigard is a powerhouse, vocally, and physically. She is a powerful presence who commands (and deserves) the spotlight.

It's not just Taveres' character Angel who falls in love with Shafiq Hicks' Tom Collins. It's the audience, too. Hicks' heart is the most open, his joy is the most compelling, and his pain is the most visceral. His voice is smooth and silky and moving. I could listen to him sing every day, including today. Hicks' ability to access emotion on stage is a marvel. Word of advice: bring tissues.

Mark, the narrator of RENT, is played by Cody Jenkins. Befitting of his role as a filmmaker who can not see, Jenkins plays Mark as detached, isolated, trapped in shadows of himself. He is a voyeur looking at his own life, going through the motions, participating, but opting out of engagement. It's not easy to pull off participating in nearly every scene, but not really being there. Jenkins achieved just that. He is elegant, practically pitch-perfect, and so very lonely. It was like watching a cousin of Anthony Rapp take on the storied role.

I could continue on, as the entire company was sublime, but particular attention must be paid to RENT's spectacular ensemble, all of whom could have stood in for larger characters and played them to perfection. They can all dance, they can all act, and together, they create joyful noise.

BWW Review: Everything is RENT at The Hobby Center
The Company of the RENT 20th Anniversary Tour. Photo: Carol Rosegg, 2018. (Images may not reflect actors in current production.)

ACCESS

RENT is about artists working to define their craft and identity, who literally struggle to pay their own rent. Therefore, in 1996, RENT's producers started offering tickets to the first few rows of the theatre at nominal prices, on a first-come, first-served basis, enabling audiences of all means to attend the show. The tradition now proudly continues with the RENT 20th Anniversary Tour at The Hobby Center.

A limited number of seats - among the finest in the house - are available for $25 for every performance. These tickets must be purchased in-person at The Hobby Center Box Office, located at 800 Bagby, Houston, TX 77002, on the day of each performance only, two hours prior to the show's start. The $25 tickets are available for cash only purchase and are limited to two tickets per person.

SEE THIS SHOW!

RENT is running through Sunday. It will change your mood and better your spirit. Do what you need to do to go, because not seeing this fine production is one regret you won't soon forget.

Broadway Across America presents RENT, running now through August 11th at The Hobby Center. Tickets start at $35. For additional information and to purchase tickets, visit The Hobby Center, or call the box office at 713-315-2400.

A limited number of seats in the first two rows of the orchestra section will be available for $25 for every performance of RENT. The $25 tickets are available for in-person purchases at the Hobby Center Box Office, located at 800 Bagby, Houston, TX 77002, on the day of each performance only, two hours prior to the show. The $25 tickets are available for cash only purchase and are limited to two tickets per person.



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From This Author Pnina Topham