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Review: RENT National Tour at Durham Performing Arts Center

Listening to the original Broadway cast recording is one thing. Watching the material performed live in front of an audience is a whole other experience.

Review: RENT National Tour at Durham Performing Arts Center

Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini's 1896 opera, La bohème, Rent follows a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and create a life in New York City's East Village in the thriving days of Bohemian Alphabet City, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.

This musical was a passion project for its creator Jonathan Larson, whose time as an aspiring musical theatre writer was most recently the subject of a Netflix film released a couple months ago titled tick, tick...BOOM! directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Larson had wanted to write a show that would bring the MTV generation and the musical theatre world together. Hours before the first preview at Off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop on January 25th, 1996, he sadly died at the age of 35 in his home from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm (which was believed to have resulted from Marfan syndrome).

Later that night, the show went on, but as a sing-through of the musical dedicated to him. Rent went on to premiere as planned and quickly gained popularity fueled by enthusiastic critical reviews as well as attention from the recent death of its creator. The show also ended up becoming the seventh musical in history to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which was accepted by Jonathan's parents, Al & Nan Larson, on his behalf.

Due to such overwhelming popularity, Rent ended up moving to the Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street uptown on April 29th, 1996. The show not only became the biggest hit Broadway had seen in years, but also a cultural phenomenon. The musical's controversial topics and innovative pricing, (which included same day-of-performance $20 tickets) helped increase the popularity of musical theater among the younger generation. Rent went on to win 4 Tony Awards (including Best Musical), and ended up running for 12 years and 5,123 performances on Broadway after closing on September 7th, 2008. For those who'd like to learn more about the history of this groundbreaking work, you can read all about it through this feature I wrote for BroadwayWorld that was published on January 27th, 2019 (the day Fox's Emmy-winning television production aired).

This national touring production, which is currently out on its last legs before closing for good, is a recreation of the original staging. Evan Ensign, who worked as a resident assistant director on the Broadway production, is at the helm. Marlies Yearby returned to choreograph. The design aspects from Jonathan Spencer's dynamic lighting to Paul Clay's sets (adapted for this tour by Matthew Marfaffi) to Angela Wendt's costumes have each been remounted. Though most important of all, the cast of young non-equity actors literally bring the house down with their energetic performances.

J.T. Wood plays Mark Cohen, a documentarian who manages to serve as the narrator of the musical. He does an expert job at holding the story together. Tommy Kaiser (who was filling in for Colman Cummings at the performance I was attending) gives a heartfelt performance as Mark's roommate, Roger Davis, a struggling musician and former drug addict who is HIV positive. As Mimi Marquez, a 19-year-old stripper with drug addictions, Analise Rios (filling in for Aiyana Smash) plays with different ranges of emotions. She not only gets to show off Mimi's edgy side in her big solo number, 'Out Tonight', but she also gets to display her vulnerable side in 'Without You' and 'Goodbye Love'. Shafiq Hicks gives a tender performance as Tom Collins, a computer genius and liberal professor.

He also provides such a heartbreaking rendition of 'I'll Cover You (Reprise)' in Act II. Javon King is perfectly flamboyant as Collins' lover, Angel Dumott Schunard, an eccentric HIV-positive street drummer and drag queen with a magnetic personality. He proves to be quite the triple threat in his big number, 'Today 4 U'. As Maureen Johnson, an unpredictably zany performance artist, Makenzie Rivera (filling in for Lyndie Moe) is such a burst of energy from the moment she enters with her rendition of 'Over the Moon'. As her girlfriend, Joanne Jefferson, a public interest lawyer, Rayla Garske gives an effectively reserved performance. It is interesting to watch the journey their tumultuous relationship takes. Not to mention that their rendition of 'Take Me or Leave Me' is a highlight. Jarred Bedgood is quite good as Benjamin Coffin III, the landlord of Mark & Roger's apartment building who traded in his personal morals for power and wealth.

Roger's big solo number near the beginning of the show, 'One Song Glory', is about how he wants to write one great song before he eventually loses his life to AIDS. Watching Colman Cummings performing it made me realize how little did Jonathan Larson know as he was creating Rent that the musical itself would be his 'One Song Glory'. It really is a great gift he left to the world. The story (as well as its themes) despite being written and set in the 1990s still feels very relevant to today. Longtime fans should be satisfied with this current touring production. Although if you've never seen Rent at all, what are you waiting for? This was pretty much the Hamilton of its time in how it really changed the perception of what a Broadway musical can be and the impact it had on pop culture. Not to mention that audiences should easily feel emotionally empowered by the end.

For more information regarding the tour, please visit:


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