BWW Review: In the Anniversary Staging, We're Reminding of Enduring Legacy of the Revolutionary RENT
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes multiplied by 20.
The celebratory 20-year anniversary tour of RENT roared into Salt Lake City's Eccles Theater to remind us of the inspiring brilliance of this gorgeous contemporary masterpiece of musical theater.
We also poignantly remember that the 35-year-old creator Jonathan Larson died the night before opening of the off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop staging. Not only did he not enjoy the success when the show moved to Broadway -- where it ran for 12 years, winning a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awards for best musical, book and original score -- we lament the loss of what the composer could have created within the last 20 years.
One of the most influential works of pop culture, RENT was not the first rock musical, but it introduced a generation to the wide possibilities of what could be successfully produced on Broadway -- and changed the face of musicals. Broadway producers never dreamed a show could attract a younger, livelier audience until RENT.
It's clear the actors in this production have an intimate connection to the material. They are not only attached to the characters they play, but also surely had known all the show's music and lyrics, with only the blocking to be learned during rehearsals.
Another hallmark of this production are the sterling vocals of the cast. They sing with great power and emotion, to make RENT deeply effective. And the slight five-piece band, authoritatively led by conductor Matthew DeMaria, sizzles. Credit is also due the sound design of Keith Caggiano for the superb clarity. This was so welcome after the theater's last production, SCHOOL OF ROCK, where the vast majority of the lyrics were unintelligible, even from my seat on the fifth row.
There's brilliance in the casting of the young, non-Equity actors, with nearly no professional credits in their bios, and virtually all making their national tour debut. (The tour began in 2016 as a fully professional Equity production, making the switch this year.) These cast members are passionate and hungry, and that's just what the show is about and what a successful production of RENT needs.
Javen King is a buoyant standout as Angel, the sweet soul of the show. He wins us over with his joyous delivery of "Today 4 U" with his take-no-prisoners attitude. Joshua Bess has a rock-star quality as the emotionally stalled Roger. "One Song Glory" is beautiful. When the lobby cast board notifies that an understudy has stepped in for a pivotal role, one immediately wonders if the performance will be up to par. But Alex Lugo is superb as Mimi, my personal favorite RENT character.
While the actors had the job of vocally telling the story, there's also much to marvel in the original direction by Michael Greif, re-created here by Evan Ensign. Greif made the show a seamless ensemble piece with connected vignettes that superbly present the emotionally reverberating plights of its many characters. After RENT, he went on to imaginatively direct the notable original productions of DEAR EVAN HANSEN, GREY GARDENS, NEXT TO NORMAL and WAR PAINT.
Revolutionary for its time, RENT continues to resonate with all of us who are struggling with life and love and rebelling against oppression. Its characters grapple with addiction, eviction, sexual identity, parents, materialism and a yearning devotion to create art. And it boldly advanced queer representation. Along with depicting the unfathomable grief surrounding the AIDS epidemic.
RENT shows if we're lucky we can choose our family. And instructs on what is most important in our daily lives.
How can you measure the life of a woman or man? It's time now to sing out, though the story never ends. Remember the love! Measure in love.