Review: Nashville Repertory Theatre's 38th Season Opens With RENT At TPAC'S Polk Theatre Through 9/25

Micah-Shane Brewer Directs Cast Led by Wood Van Meter and Mike Sallee Jr.

By: Sep. 21, 2022
Review: Nashville Repertory Theatre's 38th Season Opens With RENT At TPAC'S Polk Theatre Through 9/25
The cast of Nashville Repertory Theatre's production of Rent.
- photos by Michael Scott Evans

Hard to believe though it may be, Jonathan Larson's epic, Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent debuted off-Broadway some 26 years ago, and the show which many considered to be epoch-shattering, even revolutionary in its initial run, has gone on to become a classic, claiming its place among the very best works in the canon of American musical theater. Now onstage at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's James K. Polk Theatre through September 25, in a sumptuously produced mounting from Nashville Repertory Theatre, Rent can stake its claim on the hearts of a whole new generation of theater-goers.

Thanks to the rousing performances of director Micah-Shane Brewer's talented company who have brought the show to vivid life for Nashville audiences, Rent provides a noteworthy opening to the company's 38th season. Performed with commitment and sharp focus by a cast of young performers, this revival of Rent proves the show's timelessness, the score's resonance and the story's relevance well into the 21st century.

Review: Nashville Repertory Theatre's 38th Season Opens With RENT At TPAC'S Polk Theatre Through 9/25 The show's power comes from the stories told by its colorful characters - set during a very specific era in recent American history - who offer audiences borne of any era something with which they might identify. Since its debut in 1996, productions of Rent have brought audiences together to witness an emotional and moving tale of a group of disparate friends who themselves are brought together to form what once was considered a new kind of chosen family in New York's "Alphabet City," a time in which their lives were filled with seemingly confusing, perhaps nonsensical, acronyms that ultimately proved dangerously portentous: AIDS, HIV, STD, AZT, NIH, CDC.

Inspired by Giacomo Puccini's romantic opera La Boheme, which had debuted 100 years prior, Rent is infused with a sense of camaraderie and joie de vivre among the young and vibrant artists and their hangers-on (as is Puccini's work) who create a new society that is bound only by their own imagination and inspiration, bonding over a shared sense of desperation and malaise that with time turns into something far deeper and more meaningful.

Review: Nashville Repertory Theatre's 38th Season Opens With RENT At TPAC'S Polk Theatre Through 9/25
Mike Salle Jr. and Marena Lucero

Rent has become a classic of American musical theatre by engaging new audiences and gaining new fans through the very art created by Jonathan Larson prior to his untimely death right before the show's opening night. Larson's legacy remains constant even as new audiences fall in love with Roger, Mark and Mimi, Collins and Angel, Maureen and Joanne, and continue to sing "No Day But Today," "Take Me Out Tonight," "Seasons of Love" or "Take Me or Leave Me" over and over and over again. That's the beauty of the creation of art: new generations approach it from their own, unique perspectives, thereby giving it new meaning and a new life.

Further, for audiences of a particular generation, Rent speaks to their continuing mourning of the loss of countless creative souls for whom HIV/AIDS proved insurmountable. Watching Rent and knowing that scores of friends (including the better part of a complete generation of theater artists) died of a misunderstood plague that only now are we able to fully comprehend makes the experience more meaningful. It makes us think, to consider our own shortcomings and mistakes, encouraging us to become better people, who are more empathetic, understanding and accepting of others. Frankly, only live performance - only musical theater, perhaps? - has that kind of power.

Review: Nashville Repertory Theatre's 38th Season Opens With RENT At TPAC'S Polk Theatre Through 9/25
Wood Van Meter and Carli Hardon

Director Brewer makes good use of the Polk Theatre stage, which is transformed by the always impressive scenic design of Gary C. Hoff (although we have to admit that his three-tiered scaffolding reminded us of the set of Hollywood Squares, with conceptual artist Maureen replacing Paul Lynde in the center square), with his ensemble of actors cavorting all about the space as they bring the show to life. Amazingly, Hoff's set design somehow makes the Polk Theatre seem far more intimate than it has felt in earlier productions we've witnessed there. Initially, we wondered why the choice wasn't made to stage Rent in the black box Andrew Johnson Theatre, but thanks to Brewer, Hoff, lighting designer Michael Barnett and projections designers Kyle Odum and Sam Lowry, the Polk now provides the perfect backdrop.

Brewer's cast is led by Wood Van Meter as videographer Mark Cohen, who serves as a kind of tour guide through the environs created by stagecraft and theatrical magic. He is joined by Mike Sallee Jr. as musician/roommate Roger Davis, Marena Lucero as the doomed Mimi Marquez, Natalie Rankin as Maureen, Carli Hardon as Joanne and Justin Boyd as Bennie. Together, they create an authentic sense of family that permeates the atmosphere, and which makes their experiences accessible and, quite frankly, entertaining.

Review: Nashville Repertory Theatre's 38th Season Opens With RENT At TPAC'S Polk Theatre Through 9/25
Deonte L. Warren

However, the most notable performances among a host of them, are those provided by Deonte L. Warren as Angel and Lando Hawkins as Tom Collins. The pair's chemistry is palpable and their shared moments onstage are expressive and engaging. Warren's "Today 4 U" very nearly stops the show in its tracks, early in Act One, and the pair's exquisite duet of "I'll Cover You" is beautifully romantic.

Act Two's opening - "Seasons of Love" - remains an anthemic ode to the joys of life, love and friendship, retaining every bit of the power and glory that it had the first time we heard it, way back in the day when this cast of actors were either toddlers or hadn't even been born yet! Kudos to Piper Jones and Calvin Malone for providing their vocal pyrotechnics to the altogether gorgeous rendition of the song that never fails to elicit tears as it prompts memories of days gone by. When Brewer has his actors move downstage, arrayed across the apron of the stage in the always iconic staging for the number, they deliver the goods that make every ticket worth the price of admission: love, hope, life and despair all come together to create a memorable moment of theatrical magic.

Review: Nashville Repertory Theatre's 38th Season Opens With RENT At TPAC'S Polk Theatre Through 9/25
Piper Jones and Delaney Amatrudo

In addition to Jones and Malone, the estimable members of the ensemble include Delaney Amatrudo, Molly Brown, Dustin Davis, Dustin LaFleur, Rachel Meinhart and Gregor Patti.

Brewer's direction is made all the more impressive by the choreography of Tosha Marie, whose work in this production seems the culmination of everything that has come before in her already amazing career, and the expert musical direction of Randy Craft, whose prolific resume is equally notable.

Rent. Book and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Micah-Shane Brewer. Choreographed by Tosha Marie. Musical direction by Randy Craft. Stage managed by Isaac Krispin. Presented by Nashville Repertory Theatre at James K. Polk Theatre at Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through September 25. For more details and ticket information, go to Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).

-photos by Michael Scott Evans