‘Rent’ cast helps show remain timeless
November 6, 2019
Although Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” is a musical reflective of the 90s, highlighting the turbulent lives of those affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the show’s themes of love and acceptance have withstood the test of time over the past two decades.
“Rent” follows a group of friends over the course of a year who struggle with addiction, disease and paying for their Lower Manhattan apartments, while filmmaker Mark (Cody Jenkins) records all of their ups and downs on camera. The Tony award-winning production is on its 20th anniversary tour, currently playing at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre.
The company did justice to the rock opera as their collection of stellar harmonies swirled through the theatre. Whether the whole cast was gathered on stage for large numbers like “Rent,” a song that opened the show so strongly it could have been mistaken for the finale, or a simple duet like “Light My Candle” between Mimi (Aiyana Smash) and Roger (Coleman Cummings), their smooth voices blended beautifully.
Since there is little dialogue throughout the show, “Rent” is reliant on its soundtrack as the story is mainly told through the lyrics. The cast portrays each character’s emotions through their body language and vocals instead of the script. Even from far away, viewers could see the agony in Collins’ (Shafiq Hicks) face as he held his lover Angel (Joshua Tavares) in his arms, feeling him fade away as the fatal disease took over. When Hicks belted out the reprise of “I’ll Cover You” with heavy, engrossing vocals, it was tough not to feel choked up.
There are no kicklines or box steps in “Rent,” setting this contemporary show apart from traditional musicals. Instead, actors daringly dance on tabletops, chairs and other surfaces. For example, when Mimi flaunts on stage for her iconic number “Out Tonight,” she balances her feet over the edge of a railing with her knee-high heeled boots. She completes the intense choreography and belts out the frisky song while climbing over the top of the fire escape.
The urban set design, a structure made out of items like metal, wire and bicycle parts, was stagnant throughout show. The cold metal and lack of furniture showed how poor the group was and created a city atmosphere.
While the backdrop doesn’t change, the altering stage lights add color to the grey stage and accentuate the performers. For example, in Roger’s ballad “One Song Glory,” a spotlight is shone from below him, casting a giant shadow behind him, illustrating that his problems with disease are larger than him.
The company adds a personal touch to this rendition of “Rent” in the last scene, when Mark’s final documentary is screened. A video plays above the cast, showing clips of them freely dancing in front of the camera and bonding during rehearsal. At the same time, Mark pans his camera around the theatre, projecting the same video over the venue’s walls and seats. The homemade footage ends the somber story on a softer note.
But not every part of the show ran smoothly as the company experienced a handful of technical difficulties. There was some trouble with microphones, including one scene where a handheld microphone was brought to Benny (Juan Luis Espinal) when his headset sounded muffled. The tall speakers on both sides of the stage also caused obstructions of view, blocking spectators seated on the left and right of the theater from seeing scenes that took place on the edges of the stage.
During intermission, a last minute casting change was announced for the lead role of Mark, switching from Jenkins to his understudy Kevin Stevens. Both actors were superb, but the unexpected change hurt continuity because the actors brought a different flare to the character.
“Rent” will run at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre until Nov. 10.