The intimate playing space and the decrepit, impoverished New York City urban set design by Mark Chenovick, with lighting design by Alyssa Milione and costumes by Laurie Roberts is perfect to create this exciting, passionate and intensely human production of Jonathan Larson's "RENT". Although this show was written in the mid-nineties and is set in the mid-eighties, at the height of the AIDS crisis, nothing about this production feels dated or period specific. That's because this cast, balanced and thoroughly committed, insist that what we are seeing is their lives being lived in the moment. That sense of immediacy transcends anything historical, and even more importantly, anything theatrical, contrived or artificial about the story of young people who (like young people today) own nothing except their relationships with each other, who are struggling to hang on by their fingertips to some place in the world, whose only hope of survival is to find love and connection with one another.
A huge Broadway hit that has gone on to countless revivals, road tours and major regional theatre productions, the distinction of this production was that it peeled back all that grandiosity and relied simply on human beings so close that we could see the sweat on their brows, smell their unwashed clothes, and feel their forgiving lips on one another. Of course, to make that work it requires performers who are fully committed and authentic, never just performing but always expressing a story that they are living in their bodies. Director Jeff Orton got all of that from this remarkably talented cast and with Julia Thornton’s excellent musical direction and Troy Wageman’s always smart choreography, this show felt fresh and urgent and deeply affecting.
This was truly an ensemble production and no one felt like a supporting character, but the leads, simply because they had more of the text and more of the responsibility for telling the story, must be given their due. As the budding filmmaker who tries to record this extraordinary year, Andrew Murray was solid and dependable as Mark. Equally stabilizing was Ian Kelly as Roger, and both of them played excellent contrast to the ambitious, greedy landlord played by Eric Hagreen. As the doomed Mimi (borrowed from the original source material, Puccini’s “La Boheme”) Alex Davis-Brazill was sexy and flawed and drawn by a centrifugal force to her downfall. I thought Tori Spero as the firecracker Maureen was fantastic, and her “Over the Moon” number in Act One was, indeed, over the moon. I also really believed her difficult, often fractured relationship with Joanne (Sarah Russell) an equally independent, uncompromising woman.
At the center of making this show work, however, has to be the relationship between the drag queen, Angel and her somewhat unlikely lover, Collins. Bo Mellinger created an Angel who was sweet and adorable, full of style and spunk but never superficial, an unforgettable creature of courage and vulnerability, dignity and self-respect. It was easy to understand how Joshua Downs’ Collins fell in love with Angel, but after her death, when he sings “I’ll Cover You” his integrity, the depth of his loss and the power of his love underscored everything else that the rest of the evening had been trying to assert. If you didn’t believe every note of that song then you couldn’t believe anything else in the show. It was brilliant. And true.
And truth is what makes this production more than just a successful re-mounting of a show that has become a marker for an entire generation. “RENT” is a show about how connection with each other is the only true anchor we have in the stormy seas of life, and about how we can measure our experience and the value of our lives only by how many and how much we have loved. I feel like I just saw this show for the first time, just as these kids are living their lives for the first time.
PICTURED ABOVE: Andrew Murray and Ian Kelly
PHOTO BY: Tim Poitevin