BWW Review: RENT - THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR at Broadway Across America
The 20th Anniversary Tour of "Rent" has roared onto the stage at the Kansas City Music Hall for a week-long residency through Sunday, May 5. "Rent," a rock-opera rendering of Puccini's "La Boheme," is not easy stuff. It is musically challenging and sometimes tough to follow, but it is also undeniably powerful and here performed at the highest possible level.
"Rent" was written at the height of the AIDS epidemic by an emerging playwright named Jonathon Larson. The libretto is equal parts autobiography and an updated version of "La Boheme." The show ran for twelve years at the Nederland Theatre on Broadway, but Larson died suddenly of a non-AIDS related ailment just as his masterpiece was opening to great success. Larson was well acquainted with Stephen Sondheim and his influence can be heard in much of the score.
The story revolves around a year in the lives of roommates Roger Davis (Chase McCall), a musician, and Mark Cohen (Logan Marks), a documentarian and your narrator. They live rough in the loft of a former music publishing house owned by a former roommate and hustler named Benny (Marcus John).
Audience members wonder if Mark is the doppelganger for the late playwright Larson. Mark is Jewish and lonely. His journey is a search for family while living as an artist. Mark has been dumped by his sexy, wild child, girlfriend, Maureen (Lyndie Moe). He shoulders on. Roger lives with a double whammy; a case of musical writer's block, and an HIV diagnosis. Roger's reaction is to retreat into a shell.
Roger and Mark have assembled an ad hoc family group. Among them is a gay, anarchist NYU professor with the unlikely moniker of Tom Collins (Devinre Adams) and his part-time drag queen partner, a street drummer named Angel (Javon King). Roger meets Mimi (Jasmine Overbaugh) who becomes his new girlfriend. Mimi is an exotic dancer with a co-dependent drug problem. She is attracted to Roger, but he is reluctant to become involved until he discovers that Mimi too is HIV positive.
Roger and Mark are destitute and living in a space without central heat or electrical service or other essentials we might count as minimal. Next door is an empty lot with a homeless camp. It is defended by Roger's ex, Maureen. She is a hot red-haired performer, free spirit, and downtrodden advocate now living with a female lover and attorney named Joanne (Lencia Kebede). Benny offers a continuing rent-free existence (such as it) if Roger and Mark can discourage Maureen from making trouble that prevents him from using the space now occupied by the homeless camp for other purposes.
"Rent" is a complex character study of all these people. Angel dies of HIV. Mimi and Roger fall out based on Benny's temptation. Mimi sickens on the street only to be revived by Roger's love for her.
"Rent" is sexy and heartfelt. Performances by Chase McCall, Logan Marks, Devinre Adams, Lencia Kebede, Javon King, Jasmine Overbaugh, and Lyndie Moe are all top notch. This cast, unlike many touring groups, has developed a visible passion for this very adult material. Choreography by Marlies Yearby and direction by Evan Ensign are both outstanding.
The standout number, "Seasons of Love," is performed as the Act II opening and reprised later in the show. It is so memorable that the two renditions make the entire show worth seeing. This is the kind of show you will either absolutely love or not. It is complex enough to suggest that a little pre-show research is worth your time.
"Rent" at the Kansas City Music Hall from Work Light Productions continues through May 5. Tickets are available through www.americantheatreguild.com/kansascity/ website or by telephone at 800-776-7469.
Photos courtesy of Broadway Across America and Carol Rosegg