“There’s only now”: the eternal present of Rent. A review

Rent 20th Anniversary Tour. Photo: Amy Boyle 2019

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In one of the anthems to outsiders in Rent, the characters pay tribute to their gritty low-rent East Village world of starving artists, junkies, dealers, the homeless, the destitute, the marginalized of every sexual persuasion, “anyone out of the mainstream.” 

“Tear down the wall, aren’t we all?” they sing in La Vie Bohème. One character toasts “to being an us, for once, instead of a them.”

The ‘90s rock opera that first squatted then signed a long-term lease on the mainstream American musical theatre is back, in a deluxe 20th anniversary touring edition. And, in Evan Ensign’s production, it’s with an extremely limber, exuberant, vigorous young 15-member cast that catapults, physically and vocally, through the intricacies of Jonathan Larson’s take on Puccini’s La Bohème like there was no tomorrow. Which is, come to think of it, one of the salient points of Rent anyhow: “there’s only now.” 

That physicality (choreographer: Marlies Yearby), which gives the set-up a feverish kind of hyperactive buzz — this is a no-saunter production — ruled Act I absolutely on opening night. And it had double-duty. It had to stand in for Larson’s dexterous lyrics almost completely since they were virtually inaudible in the brightly tinny, harsh, forward sound mix (at least from Row C).

The lyrics reference Diet Coke; the presentation is pure Red Bull. The result, I’d imagine, was pure (if stunningly costumed) confusion for Rent newbies — at least at first.

By Act II, the much-improved sound gave us a chance to appreciate the ways in which Rent remains punch-y after two decades-plus — and how much the production has going for it.

It was always easy, of course, to take shots at the 1996 musical — that had its origins at tiny New York Theatre Workshop (original NYC home of Hadestown) — for its high-price uptown vision of downtown squalor. By tradition the producers, incidentally, make available $25.50 rush tickets for the front orchestra seats an hour before every performance. But any show whose “plot” hinges on gentrification and a slum landlord evicting impoverished artists and shutting down the tent city next door, hasn’t exactly outlived its best-before date.

True, the particulars of life in the shadow of AIDS may have changed, but the sense of mortal fragility hasn’t gone anywhere, lord knows. And as for the upbeat exhortations to seize the day and hang on to your dreams — “the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation” — that kind of message lifts itself out of vintage, and speaks to a particularly vicious, cynical, hard-ass moment in history. It never goes out of style in American musicals.

In Seasons of Love, the stirring Act II anthem, Rent asks the question how to measure a year in the life of someone. And, since this isn’t the kind of musical to leave you ruminating in thoughtful ambivalence, it delivers the answer, obvious but powerful as delivered musically: love. That this is the most racially, culturally diverse cast (and onstage band) you’ll see all season has its own eloquence too.

Rent 20th Anniversary Tour. Photo: Amy Boyle 2019

The singing talent onstage, who clamour over the twinkling New York fire escape scaffolding of Paul Clay’s design (with its lovely paper lantern moon), is hot. As Roger, a stalled songwriter — HIV-positive and struggling to write one last great song before his candle is snuffed out — Coleman Cummings is compelling. As usual in Rent, though, the arc by which Roger gets drawn out of his life as recluse into a declaration of love for the doomed Mimi seems cluttered and full of unconvincing stops and starts. But the actor really invests in Roger’s big finale creation, Your Eyes, thinnish though it is.

His best friend Mark is a wry and nerdy filmmaker who steps in as narrator to proceedings, sells out to tabloid TV and regains his artistic integrity. He’s played with engaging comical zest by Cody Jenkins. And their chemistry is one of the delights of the evening.

Aiyana Smash in Rent 20th Anniversary Tour. Photo by Amy Boyle.

As the HIV-positive Mimi, a junkie and exotic dancer in an S and M club, the exquisite Aiyana Smash has a powerhouse voice and acrobatic suppleness shown off to great advantage in Angela Wendt’s slinky elastic costumes. You wouldn’t call her waif-like: her initiation approach to her neighbour Roger is more like an ambush.

Rent is crammed with love stories and resentful ex’s. Tom Collins and the drag queen street drummer Angel get excellent performances from Shafiq Hicks and Joshua Tavares. Their tender love duet I’ll Cover You is a highlight.

There’s a couple with a comic inability to stop bickering no matter how many times they manage to reconcile. One-half is Mark’s ex, the sassy performance artiste Maureen (Kelsee Sweigard), whose daffy one-woman show is billed as a protest provocation. The other is Joanne (Samantha Mbolekwa), an increasingly exasperated lawyer who’s been roped into being a sort of protest stage manager.

In a way, Maureen’s song, kooky though it is, speaks to the original audacity of Rent, and the commitment of this touring cast. “Leap of faith leap of faith leap of faith leap of faith,” she sings in her earnest ‘hey diddle diddle’ tale of the enterprising bovine who went for the long leap. “The only thing to do is jump over the moon.”

Words to live by in theatre. 


Rent 20th Anniversary Tour

Broadway Across Canada

Created by: Jonathan Larson

Original direction: Michael Greif, re-staged by Evan Ensign

Starring: Coleman Cummings, Cody Jenkins, Aiyana Smash, Shafiq Hicks, Juan Luis Espinal, Samantha Mbolekwa, Joshua Tavares, Kelsee Sweigard

Where: Jubilee Auditorium

Running: through Sunday

Tickets: 1-855-985-5000, ticketmaster.ca

Rush tickets ($25.50) are available for the first rows of orchestra seating one hour before every performance, for in-person purchase at the Jube.

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