BWW Review: ASU Gammage Hosts The 20th Anniversary Tour Of RENT
Flashback to the '80's. In 1981, the first cases of AIDS, primarily among gay men, were detected in California and New York. By the beginning of the '90's, the disease, because of outrageous political neglect, had taken a ravaging toll. It was a time, too, when congregations of the disenchanted and disconnected collected in urban enclaves like Alphabet City in Manhattan's East Village ~ struggling artists and musicians, nonconformists, and otherwise free spirits coexisting in a low-income neighborhood rife with homelessness, drugs and crime. And the urban music of that period was a reflection of the times ~ a chaotic blend of musical styles and sounds.
Flash forward to 1996. Playwright/composer Jonathan Larson packaged all these elements, their texture and turbulence, into RENT, a Broadway bonanza that earned him a Pulitzer Prize and three Tonys.
Now, the 20th Anniversary Tour (in its third year!) boasts a magnificent cast in a powerhouse production that celebrates the genius and imagination of its author. The show, now on stage for a brief run at ASU's Gammage Auditorium, is, in every respect a compelling and intensely human narrative ~ a mix of exhilaration, wit, and poignancy. One after another of knockout performances bring life to Larson's memorable songs, and a solid gold orchestra, conducted by Matthew DeMaria, brings his music all the way home to the heart.
RENT carries nuanced meaning, the essence of which is reflected in the lives and struggles of its protagonists.
On the one hand, rent is the payment due for one's living quarters ~ in this case, what freeloading roommates Mark (Logan Marks) and Roger (Joshua Bess) owe but can't pay to one-time friend Benny (Xavier McKinnon) whose mercenary interests have turned to evicting the homeless and building a lucrative development (a cyber arts studio!) in their place. They can get a pass on their rent, however, if they agree to squelch an upcoming protest featuring Maureen (Lyndie Moe), an over-the-top performance artist.
On the other hand, rent is a condition of being torn apart ~ in this case, by grief, sickness, and unfulfilled dreams. Roger exemplifies this condition ~ absorbed by the death of his girlfriend, struggling to compose a song to memorialize her (One Song Glory), holding fast to a secret, and rejecting the advances of the incredibly alluring Mimi Marquez (Deri' Andra Tucker).
Then, there's that aspect of rent that's a temporary hold on something vital ~ the notion that love offers a new lease on life ~ expressed in I'll Cover You, a touching exchange between Angel, a drag queen (Javon King) and Tom Collins (Devinré Adams).
In every aspect, the terms of rent weigh heavy on these souls whose challenged lives inevitably intersect and culminate in a glorious affirmation of life (Seasons of Love).
The performances of this Tour's cast are magnetic. Logan Marks is terrific as the keen-eyed camera-carrying chronicler of street life and ever-ready conscience to Roger. Joshua Bess perfectly captures Roger's angst and ambivalence. Tucker is marvelous as Mimi, from the moment she entices Roger to light her candle to her evocative delivery of Out Tonight, and beyond. Javon King is magnificent as the lovable and eccentric Angel. Lyndie Moe is electrifying as Maureen; her performance of Over the Moon, is jaw-dropping. When Devinré Adams croons with a heart full of loss over Angel's demise, the tears are not his alone.
One might have thought that, after twenty-three years, RENT might have lost its sparkle and relevance. Perhaps, a period piece with music from another time that's been surpassed by new sounds. On the contrary. The work rocks, its message is enduring, and its characters are forever memorable..
RENT runs through June 2nd at ASU Gammage in Tempe, AZ.
Photo credit to Carol Rosegg