I have a confession to make. Despite the fact I have been a fan of theater for the past 19 years of my life, I have never seen the musical “Rent.” I’ve never seen the movie or even listened to the cast album all the way through. For a long time, this was not intentional. However, there reached a point where I decided to save my experience of this musical until I had the opportunity to see it live. There is something special about the experience of going into a musical knowing absolutely nothing beforehand, everything new and unexpected.
Still, I think my attempt to have that experience by staying as far away as possible from “Rent” ultimately failed. “Rent” is a cultural touchstone. I’ve still heard some of the songs, I know the story of Jonathan Larson’s tragic death (the creator died the night of the Off-Broadway premiere) and I know the musical’s reputation for being life-changing or the best show of all time. Despite all my avoidance, I still went into this musical with high expectations.
Based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme” (which was actually performed on campus last year), “Rent” tells the story of a group of young artists living in New York’s East Village during the early 1990’s. At the core are Mark (Sammy Ferber) and Roger (Kaleb Wells), two roommates living in a run-down industrial loft. Mark is a filmmaker while Roger struggles as a musician. Their ex-roommate turned landlord Benny (Marcus John) demands that they pay their rent. His ultimate goal is to use the money to turn the lot across the street from their building into a cyber-arts studio. The problem: the lot is has transformed into a tent town set up by the homeless. It also doubles as a performance space for Maureen (Lyndie Moe), Mark’s bisexual ex-girlfriend. The first act of the musical focuses on the group of friends during Christmas Eve, as Maureen stages a performance to protest Benny’s cyber-arts studio. After the protest segways into a riot, Benny locks the group out of their building and closes the lot. From here, the second act begins as the group breaks into the building on New Year’s Eve and then follows them throughout the rest of the year. (Note: There is an oppositional reading of this musical in which Benny is just a landlord trying to get his friends to pay him the rent they owe him. I am acknowledging this here because quite honestly, there’s some truth to it.)
However, this does not even begin to cover the real heart of the musical. In the background, influencing it all is the shadow of AIDS. Collins (Aaron Harrington) and Angel (Aaron Alcaraz), a pair of gay lovers, are both diagnosed with the disease and attend a support group. Roger battles both the disease and severe depression, as his last girlfriend committed suicide after discovering she had AIDS. It is later revealed that Mimi (Skyler Volpe), exotic dancer and Roger’s love interest, is also diagnosed. Overwhelmingly, it is the AIDS crisis that reveals the real center of the show. It takes place at a time in which there was little to no hope for those who were revealed to be HIV positive. The characters struggle with this, questioning how they can live while knowing of the inevitability of their oncoming death.
“Rent” is currently a traveling production, traversing the country on its 20th-anniversary tour. This past week, it was housed in the Belk Theater at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. This is its rightful home, as every seat in the theater was filled. The tour has also kept the stylings of the original production and even the set and costumes seemed to be the exact same. The original “Rent” was a powerhouse that launched a number of careers, including Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs and Anthony Rapp. The 20th anniversary maintains this history with a cast of relatively young and inexperienced actors. Just from looking at the program, ten or eleven of them have never been a member of a national tour. Some only list credits for college productions or cruise lines. The cast’s Mark even lists an award he won in high school theater, something I’ve never seen in a professional touring company.
This inexperience, for the most part, never shows. All of the actors fully inhabited their characters, making the entire audience believe in and root for them. Their voices were absolute powerhouses and shone in both group numbers and solos. Even the ensemble was allowed their moments to shine through features in songs like “Life Support” and the iconic “Seasons of Love.” The absolute standout was Kaleb Wells’ Roger. Roger is a character with deep physical and mental anguish, struggling from both AIDS and the suicide of his girlfriend. It warmed my heart to watch this character’s growth and maturation throughout the musical. Wells is also an exceptional singer and absolutely nails every solo, group number and duet.
The real question here is whether or not the show managed to fulfill or live up to the reputation it has. While it did not manage to become my favorite show, it was a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining theater experience. The cast makes up for its relative inexperience with vocal and performing talent. Every song, even the well-known ones, was better live than I thought it possibly could be. However, in my own experience, the musical did not quite escape the shadow of its reputation. It lives in it, only just reaching the edges. Despite being a great show with exceptional performers, I don’t think it’s possible to ever reach the level of cult phenomenon that the original created. Still, that does not make this production not worth seeing. It is a story of love, of overcoming hardships, and of the importance of friendships. It shines a light on the plight of those diagnosed with AIDS and of those in poverty in 1990’s New York City. These are topics worth continuing to discuss and keep in the cultural canon. If you’re looking for a night of pure entertainment and some of the best music you’ll ever hear, “Rent” is the place to be.