Review: RENT, National Tour at DPAC
There are some musicals that become cultural milestones, that permeate beyond the theatre community into mainstream popular culture. OKLAHOMA did so in its day and HAMILTON is an obvious modern example. But if there's one show that achieved it in the 1990s, it's RENT. And this week, you can see the 20th Anniversary touring production at DPAC. The show's music, lyrics, and book by Jonathan Larson haven't changed over the past two decades but the world in which they exist certainly has.
AIDS is no longer the death-sentence that it was during the crisis in the 1980s and 1990s because of modern advancements in medicine and treatment. The musical is set in 1989 and 1990 and takes place in the East Village in New York City. This revival, directed by Evan Ensign, attempts to return us to those days and it's remarkable how it feels like a period piece -- separated from modern life by the clothing, the slang, and the lack of cell phones.
Rent was revolutionary when it premiered on Broadway in 1996. The reimagining of Puccini's opera "La Boheme" won a Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Musical. In 2005, a film starring much of the original Broadway cast catapulted the show back into popularity (and helped introduce Idina Menzel to the public conscious).
This production features a young cast, many of whom are making their national tour debuts. Their youth is fitting for these characters (Mimi is after all meant to look young even for her age of 19) and hammers home the message of how fleeting life can be. Cody Jenkins is perfectly cast as Mark and particularly shines in "Tango Maureen." Though Coleman Cummings is not as rock 'n' roll as many of the men who have portrayed Roger, he has a lovely voice that makes "One Song Glory" very beautiful.
Samantha Mbolekwa's Joanne is one of the highlights of the show, as her gorgeous voice and attitude make her perfect for the role of Maureen's lawyer girlfriend. Angel is played by Joshua Tavares who perfectly executes the singing, Marlies Yearby's choreography, and the cheerful but strong demeanor of the character.
Aiyana Smash's take on Mimi is less delicate than some past Mimis; she's aggressive and knows what she wants and how to pack her punches. She makes "Out Tonight" one of the best parts of the show between her dancing, fantastic voice, and magnetism. It's a great spin on the role and perfectly executed.
The musical does have some pacing issues, particularly in the second act. It's loud and chaotic and it can be hard to keep track of what's happening if you're not paying attention. This tour has similar vibes to an amateur film, which makes sense as Mark is an amateur filmmaker. However, there are points when it felt messy rather than purposeful.
The set, by Paul Clay, has a carefully crafted ramshackle feeling. (I was frankly a little confused by the Christmas tree lights-adorned set piece.) The costumes by Angela Wendt are overall really fun to look at, though I don't think men's pants in the late 1980's were actually that skinny. Angel's costumes in particular are very exciting and flashy.
If you're never seen Rent, or if you've seen it and love it, the national tour is definitely worth your time. It has great music and interwoven stories that can remind you or even teach you about what it was like to live through the AIDS crisis in New York City. Furthermore, it's always great to catch up with a musical that is loved by so many people. Rent is playing at DPAC until February 2.
Photo Credit: Amy Boyle Photography