BWW Review: RENT Pays a Visit to Fox Cities P.A.C.
RENT 20TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR opened at Appleton's Fox Cities Performing Arts Center on May 11 and will continue to play through May 13. In spite of its advancing age, RENT remains relevant, compelling and enjoyable.
If it has been too long since you've heard the name RENT, here's a little refresher. RENT is the smash-hit musical that premiered on Broadway in 1996. Loosely based on Puccini's LA BOHEME, RENT follows a group of young friends in New York's East Village. They struggle with poverty, gentrification, artistic freedom, romance, social acceptance, drug addiction and AIDS.
A lot has changed since RENT's heyday. Topics that were taboo and "edgy" in the mid-1990s no longer are. LGBTQ rights have made huge strides. AIDS can be well managed with proper medical care. While some of RENT's surface-level themes are distinctly less relevant than they were 22 years ago, the underlying themes are still as pertinent as ever. Marginalization, the search for connection and the struggle to live life to the fullest will probably be relevant topics to address until the end of time. Plus, with the current opioid epidemic, the prominent role of heroin may actually seem more relevant and timely than it did during RENT's heyday.
Full disclosure: this review is not without bias. RENT is my first love. Starting in 1997, I'd seen it fairly regularly with an array of different casts. When other kids obsessed over Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC and Hanson, I familiarized myself with performers I never saw and performances in languages I do not speak.
Since the last performance of RENT at the Fox Cities P.A.C. was in 2009 and the national tour closed in 2010, it had been a while since I'd seen a production. Some of the online reviews of this production were less than stellar, so I was fearful that this incarnation might not hold up. Luckily, all those fears were quickly dispelled. As long as you remember that RENT is set in the 1990s and not the present, you should have no trouble connecting with the show, which offers all the power of previous productions.
Compared to previous productions, RENT 20TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR fares well. Compared to the RENT movie...well, let's just pretend that never happened, but suffice it to say the live show far outshines the film.
Theatergoers familiar with the show will find that a lot remains the same. The set design, lighting and choreography are nearly indistinguishable from previous productions. Costuming clearly references previous designs, though there are a few slight variations. Where this production really sets itself apart is the direction (by Evan Ensign based on original direction by Michael Greif), which adds to both the overall meaning and emotional weight of the show. The actors in this production are generally more emotive than previous casts. It seems as though careful attention was paid to what is happening with every character in every scene, and it shows. For proof, just try watching everyone in the background during "Over the Moon." Though Maureen is the only one with lines during this number, each individual character's story is silently continuing in the background.
The ensemble cast is as skilled and engaging as any you're likely to encounter.
If not carefully performed, the character of Mark can come across as obnoxious. After all, he seems to dislike his parents for no apparent reason. However, Sammy Ferber skillfully navigates the fine line of keeping Mark fun and quirky without ever seeming whiny or immature, making Mark more likable and relatable.
Logan Farine is powerful and moving as Roger. His voice leaves nothing to be desired. In "One Song Glory," he does a brilliant job clearly understanding the weight of the words as they relate to Roger's current situation, making this song as gut-wrenching as the big cry-through numbers of the second act, "Without You" and "I'll Cover You (Reprise)."
Paola Hernandez does a superb job portraying Mimi's heroin addiction. She appears strung out at all the right times, adding to the impact of Mimi's storyline.
As Tom Collins, Josh Walker's low, full voice makes listening to "Santa Fe" and "I'll Cover You (Reprise)" a rich listening treat.
Aaron Alcaraz is sweet and energetic as Angel. Since Angel is generally the heart of the show, the role demands charisma, which Alcaraz does not lack.
Jasmine Easler is incredibly likable as Joanne. Joanne can often seem like the "odd man out" in the quirky cast of characters, but Jasmine Easler's performance develops a clear connection with the rest of the characters without sacrificing Joanne's more serious personality.
Marcus John has the best dancing skills you're likely to see from anyone playing Benny. He has an intensity that makes him captivating to watch.
With topnotch direction and a talented cast, RENT's day is still today.
Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg