Review: Incredible 25th anniversary farewell tour of 'Rent' welcomes Detroit audiences
Courtesy of Broadway in Detroit
Welcoming back audiences with open arms for the first time since March 2020, the current, supposedly “farewell,” touring production of Jonathan Larson’s iconic rock musical “Rent” brought down the house during Tuesday’s opening night performance at The Fisher Theatre. One of the better tours of the musical, this iteration might look similar (in terms of scenic design) to the one that passed through in early 2019, but subtle tweaks in staging and choreography by director Evan Ensign and Marlies Yearby give it a fresh identity. The cast, especially Aiyana Smash’s electric Mimi, Javon King’s spunky Angel and Shafiq Hicks earth shattering Collins, nearly tore the roof of the building after pleased, masked, theatregoers took in Larson’s unforgettable lyrics and the productions’ vibrant ensemble harmonies.
It makes sense “Rent” be the first show to christen The Fisher post lockdown, a known property with showstopping ballads and memorable songs is exactly what the doctor ordered to lure skeptical theatregoers back into their temple. And it’s a solid reintroduction to live performances considering “Rent,” since its 1996 debut off-Broadway, has become one of the most popular musical productions of all time. Larson’s musical crusade on the AIDS epidemic, as we follow a rag-tag group of artists and friends surviving in New York City with skyrocketing homeless rates and illicit drugs circulating on the streets, speaks as much volume today as it did 25 years ago. “Rent” is also the gold standard in diversity on stage and even pioneered the lottery system where theatregoers could purchase front row seats at discounted rates (something this touring production does for those willing to arrive early).
The eclectic musical styles maintain their sense of discovery under Matthew DeMaria’s direction. A cross pollination of genres including rock, gospel, pop, and tango haven’t depreciated and showstoppers hold-up. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house during Hicks’ heartbreaking rendition of “I’ll Cover You (Reprise);” we moo’d our little hearts out when Maureen (Lyndie Moe) pleaded during the hilarious “Over the Moon” (which the tour incorporates fun sight gags that are new to the “Rent” canon); and “Life Support” hits all the feels. But noteworthy songs, Mimi’s “Out Tonight,” are populated with newfound energy and dexterity. Paul Clay’s scenic design creates exceptional levels for the cast to maneuver around and Ensign brilliantly leans into it. The physicality of these performers is delightful and worth the price of admission (Jarred Bedgood as Benny practically did what is the equivalent of a breakdance routine during the usually mellow “You’ll See”). If someone had unknowingly walked into the production during King’s performance of “Today 4U,” they’d probably assume it was a Cirque du Soleil stunt.
Some performers didn’t always resonate, Cody Jenkin’s Mark Cohen, a filmmaker/narrator who documents the whole show with his 35mm camera, and Coleman Cummings’s Roger, Mark’s detached roommate/songwriter still reeling from the suicide of his girlfriend and AIDS diagnosis, lack the type of chemistry necessary to sell the primary relationship not to mention some questionable character choices. During the “Tango Maureen,” Jenkin’s acts as though he is an electric chair, bottled with zany and often distracting stances. Thankfully his co-star in that scene, a wonderful Rayla Garske, keeps him grounded, proving less is indeed more.
Costumes designed by Angela Wendt and Jonathan Spence’s lighting capture the aesthetic of the original production while casually finding ways to throw in new flavors. Angel’s signature Christmas outfit pops under the stadium inspired rock concert lens despite a few abrupt scene transitions undercutting the emotional crux of certain sequences. (The segway from “Life Support” into “Out Tonight” is rather jarring). While this keeps the nearly three-hour production moving, part of me yearned for smoother emotional beats. Pace is important, but at least give me some time to process.
Either way, these are minor grievances in a mostly flawless production, arriving at a turning point as the industry is revving back to life. Looking at “Rent” in the context of 2021, still surviving the pandemic, it all comes full circle. Lockdowns would have been much harder without the friends we cherish and love, something “Rent” doesn’t let us forget. These timeless qualities, along with the reminder of how far we’ve progressed in the fight against AIDS-AZT treatments and other medical procedures have made what was once a death sentence now a livable condition-make this tour a must-see. The utter poignancy and borderline euphoric experience of repeating “no day but today” shows how the past no longer defines us.
RENT: 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour continues at The Fisher Theatre in Detroit through Sunday, October 24th.
Tickets start at $39 (includes facility and parking fees) and can be purchased online at ticketmaster.com, by phone at 800-982-2787, and in person at the Fisher Theatre Box Office. A limited number of premium seats will be available through Ticketmaster and at the Fisher Theatre Box Office.