BWW Review: RENT 20TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR at Lied Center For Performing Arts is Perfection!
Jonathan Larson's Tony Award-winning groundbreaking musical, RENT, rocks stages across America in its 20th Anniversary touring production. It is currently playing at the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln, Nebraska. Restaged for tour by Evan Ensign with choreography by Marlies Yearby and costumes by Angela Wendt, this production has it all: fantastic music and dance, extremely talented performing artists, and a magnificent book truly deserving of its Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
In the lyrics to the song, "Rent," there's a line that reads, "Real life getting more like fiction every day." In this case, fiction is mirroring real life. RENT was based on Larson's own life as a starving artist in Greenwich Village. His girlfriend left him for a woman, he had an illegal wood-burning stove in his apartment, and he had to throw down his keys for any visitors because of a broken door buzzer. He attended a grief/illness support group which inspired his song, "Life Support," that suggests that the loss of dignity is worse than loss of life.
In 1996 RENT opened on Broadway. Sadly, Jonathan Larson never got to witness his phenomenal success. He died of an aortic dissection the night before his Off-Broadway premiere at the age of 35. But his legacy lives on. He had found more than "one song, one last refrain" to leave behind.
Larson was known as a composer and playwright who explored multiculturalism, addiction and homophobia. RENT covers all of these issues. His work is loosely based on Giacomo Puccini's opera La Boheme, and includes a rowdy number entitled, "La Vie Boheme." It is the desire of these artistic persons to maintain a Bohemian lifestyle with no rules. But there are many obstacles in their lives, which leads businessman Benny to declare that it is Calcutta, not Bohemia, where they live.
It's Christmas Eve in Manhattan's East Village in an upstairs unheated apartment shared by filmmaker Mark and rock musician Roger. Former friend, Benny, has found success and has ruined their friendship by reneging on a promise not to collect rent from the prior year. The roommates cannot pay the rent, let alone keep it heated with an illegal fire in a trash can. Tom Collins, their gay anarchist professor friend, is mugged as he waits below the apartment. Cross-dressing drummer Angel finds Collins, cares for his injuries, and ignites a relationship.
Entering the apartment is Mimi, an exotic dancer/junkie who is looking for a light for her candle. Roger fights his attraction to her. He wants to write one last great song to be remembered by upon his inevitable death from AIDS. While he's resisting love, his roommate Mark is recovering from a broken relationship with his girlfriend Maureen, who left him for a lawyer named Joanne.The characters are complex. It takes a high degree of sensitivity to portray them properly as well as sing their vocally challenging songs. This cast is superb! I was continually thrilled by how good they are. These are vocal athletes who can perform amazing fetes.
Joshua Bess (Roger Davis) is stupefyingly good. He is a natural rocker with rock solid vocals in some difficult numbers, such as "One Song Glory." Everything about Bess is ideal, and he acts like it's easy.
Devinre' Adams (Tom Collins) doesn't let me down. His songs are some of my favorites and he is just as good as the Jesse L. Martin that I loved in my well-worn copy of the 2005 DVD. "Santa Fe" and "I'll Cover You" are amazing. That's also because Javon King (Angel Schunard) is equally amazing. His voice runs from exquisitely sweet and lyrical to bold and forceful. Add to that King's moves in the memorable "Today 4 U." King drums, sashays, and jumps up onto the table top effortlessly. He is a joy to watch.
Powerhouses Lencia Kebede (Joanne Jefferson) and Lyndie Moe (Maureen) electrify with "Take Me or Leave Me." Kebede and Marks are fantastic and funny in "Tango: Maureen," and Moe couldn't be more entertaining in her "Over the Moon" number with her crazy antics, sexy moves (moooves), and stellar vocals. The audience mooing in unison with Moe invited us further into their lives.
Deri'Andra Tucker (Mimi Marquez) smoothly transitions from pathetic starving junkie to provocative exotic dancer to love torn romantic with credibility. She and Bess send chills with their harmony in "Without You," while her "Goodbye, Love" draws tears with her passion and grief.
Marcus John (Benjamin Coffin III) doesn't have a large singing part, but what he does have, he nails. Another top notch voice!
There is just no mediocre singer in the bunch. And those solos in "Seasons of Love!"
These are not just vocal athletes--they climb poles and perform gymnastic tricks adding visual intrigue to a work that is already beautiful to hear. The actors fully utilize an interesting set of metal and wood pieces that fill the stage, Matthew E. Maraffi's adaptation of Paul Clay's original set design. This mishmash of materials that represents living in poverty with the need to make do is accurate, yet creative.
The band is part of the set, just off to the left of the action. Watching keyboardist/conductor Matthew DeMaria lead the excellent five-piece orchestra is interesting, giving me a feeling of tension as he counts off the beats. The music itself is soaring, memorable, and evocative of hope, desperation, and love.
Larson's award winning lyrics and book are works of art. There is so much irony and so many brilliant touches such as "Christmas bells are ringing...but not for us," or the window washer crying, "Honest living! Honest living!" It's inspired. It's layered. In the scene with "Without You," three different couples are exploring what it will be like without each other. Mimi figuratively sings, "Cause I die, without you," while Angel literally dies, leaving Collins without his love.
His repetition of sounds without losing meaning: "To fruits- to no absolutes- To Absolut- to choice- To the Village Voice- To any passing fad, To being an us for once Instead of a them," is clever and far from empty rhyming. There are multiple meanings to his word choices: 'Rent,' for example. It is the money you have to have in order to live under a roof. It's a feeling of being torn apart by grief and loss. It's a temporary hold on love: "I think they meant it, when they said you can't buy love. Now I know you can rent it." Or it's a temporary hold on life itself.
I wish Jonathan Larson's rent wouldn't have run out. I wish he could be here to smile on his brain child growing up. It's just so darn great. I will never tire of it. It's timeless. It's thrilling. It's touching. And this touring cast couldn't be more perfect. Seeing them, I was torn apart: I was rent.
The Lied Center for Performing Arts is hosting RENT for four more performances: Saturday, March 2 at 2:00 and 7:30 pm, and Sunday, March 3 at 2:00 and 7:30 pm. There are no days but those days. Forget regret. This is a show you must see.
Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg