"Rent," the rock opera that took the world by storm, officially opened on Broadway in 1996. Granted, the 20th Anniversary tour has been on the move since 2016, but it's no surprise the show (now 22 years old) is still filling up theaters across the country, and with the forthcoming live broadcast set to air on Fox at the end of this month, the show's appeal may be approaching an all time high.
If you’ve never seen “Rent” on stage, maybe you caught the 2005 film that had mixed reactions across the board (I liked it), or perhaps even classify yourself as a “Renthead” - no matter your opinion, the latest performance at The Fisher Theatre in Detroit will not dwindle your enthusiasm for Jonathan Larson’s lyrical crusade documenting everything from drug addiction and homelessness to bohemian lifestyles, and - most importantly - the AIDS epidemic that took countless lives. Perhaps you find yourself in the middle of the spectrum, maybe you love “Rent” and share a close personal connection with the story, or perhaps you are seeing it again out of curiosity. But if you find yourself to be protective of the original work and don’t want to see it introduced again - then this incarnation of “Rent” might leave more to be desired.
I noticed myself becoming apprehensive the second principal narrator and penniless filmmaker Mark (Logan Marks - making his tour debut) started his initial tune up. It felt like something was missing. Maybe it was opening night jitters, or the fact that the mics made it seem like the actors were talking in a fish tank, but “Rent” got off to a rocky start. The titular song itself lacked the type of rapid fire energy fans are accustomed to seeing and for a brief window, this iteration of Larson’s iconic story felt soulless.
As for the rest of the show, accompanied by a stellar five piece orchestra that sat on stage, it eventually picked up the pieces and delivered on the Larson name. But, surprisingly, it doesn’t spark magic with the roommate bond of Mark and Roger (Joshua Bess) whose narrative sits at the center of the plot; instead, the spark comes from the ensemble around them.
For those who don't know, “Rent” chronicles a year in the lives of a group of individuals whose paths cross under interesting circumstances while struggling to pay rent, find love, and create their art; all while trying to keep the heat and electricity going in their worn down apartment buildings on the east side of New York City. For starters, there's the aforementioned amateur filmmaker Mark who is in the midst of shooting a documentary, his roommate Roger is working on "a bittersweet, evocative song" inspired in part by his girlfriend's suicide, and is afraid he won’t finish it before his HIV diagnosis kills him. Then we have Mimi (Deri’Andra Tucker), an exotic dancer with a heroin addiction and affinity for Roger; and Angel (Javon King), a humble drag queen who falls hard for Tom Collins (Devinre Adams).
Of course, there’s also Joanne (Lenica Kebede), Mark's ex-girlfriend who has since become a lesbian and is currently dating Maureen (Lyndie Moe), a cycle that gives terrific motivation to the tune “Tango: Maureen." It’s a trifecta of exposition and plotting that, if you don’t already know the show, could be hard to follow. So much so, the evening’s program includes an insert with a pie graph explaining the principle cast’s relationship to each other. While unnecessary, it could provide the average non-theatregoer some context to the songs on display. Though, I’d wager they could understand the meaning of “Seasons of Love” with or without the subtext of the show.
Either way, this cast does pull layers from Larson’s vision, with director Evan Ensign finding new and inventive ways of creating chaos and clutter on the stage. Granted, some blocking (like in the act one closer: “La Vie Boheme”) stays fairly relative to its predecessors (they’re all sitting at a restaurant table, Last Supper style, while the ensemble dance and sing like hooligans - it’s a total blast) - while other songs like the emotional ballad “Will I?” finds new meaning and will no doubt require tissues upon viewing.
Other ballads like “I’ll Cover You (reprise)” sung by Collins, and “Out Tonight” - which bolsters the former New Orleans Saint cheerleader Tucker owning every inch of the stage - still pack the relevance needed to keep us invested in each performance. Specifically in Collins' heart wrenching number that, to this day, perfectly exemplifies what it’s like to lose someone you loved unconditionally.
Still, it’s not all perfect: songs like “What You Own” - a classic rock Broadway duet that (spoiler alert) brings Roger and Mark back together after they separate in act II - lacked heart and substance. Even the usual surefire hit “One Song Glory” did little for me (Bess' portrayal doesn’t sell the desperation even though he can belt every lyric); honestly, it felt like he was going through the motions. Eventually, he seemed to get with the program as the musical progressed, but his uneven performance (along with Marks) added a blemish throughout the nearly three hour runtime.
And finally, I do feel the need to shoutout King’s performance as Angel, who found a way to tackle the role in the best version of the character I’ve seen. He’ll make you laugh, cry, and then laugh again. I know that’s nothing new to the actor who plays the character, but King - who is simultaneously finishing up his musical theatre degree - brings the right pedigree and human touch of empathy.
The argument can be made that Larson’s legacy deserves better than what’s currently on tour (if there’s money to be made, you bet the producers will squeak out every penny) but you can’t deny the earnest young actors dedication and willingness to breathe new life into an iconic property that will always be a hot commodity. Because even at this production's lowest, the lyrics and message of Larson’s story ring the same passionate response I felt the first time I saw it. Mirroring the show's message, just when you start to lose hope, they pull you right back in.
RENT continues through January 20th at The Fisher Theatre in Detroit you can purchase tickets here