Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking 1996 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Rent” has returned to Dayton as part of its 20th anniversary national tour, continuing through Sunday, Jan. 26 at the Schuster Center.
Inspired by Puccini’s “La Bohème” and set over the course of a complicated and life-changing year, “Rent” boldly explores class, community, identity, romance, loss, despair, and hope among starving artists in Manhattan’s East Village. As the topsy-turvy central relationship between aspiring musician Roger and his drug-addicted girlfriend Mimi transpires, the show skillfully stresses the importance of connection, forgiveness and love among a family of friends.
“This musical is so powerful because it’s a story of life,” said Cody Jenkins, who portrays Mark Cohen, an aspiring filmmaker and Roger’s best friend. “There are not many musicals written about the world today. This isn’t ‘Cinderella’ or ‘Frozen.’ ‘Rent’ is about real life and the things that continue to affect our daily lives. But the fact that it’s an energetic rock musical is also exciting. The music is beautiful and really draws the audience in.”
Here are five reasons why you should catch this emotionally stirring show.
1. A RELEVANT ANNIVERSARY
Larson wrote “Rent” long before the dawn of social media, but signature lyrics such as “connection in an isolating age” sting with relevant truth considering 2020’s often divisive, polarizing climate. As the years go by, in look and feel, the show continues to nostalgically cement itself as Generation X’s “A Chorus Line” (thank goodness Spike Lee is still “filming down the street” every now and then), but at the same rate, it is a modern classic remaining impactful unlike any other musical. “So many scenes are relevant,” Jenkins said. “For those who haven’t seen ‘Rent’ in a long time, there can be a natural disconnect, a forgetfulness about what this show really has to say. But the cast has received a lot of great comments from people after the show saying, with almost a sense of pride, how the show hit home. As actors, we tell the story and invite the audience in. We aren’t forcing people to believe what we believe. This is a show the audience steps into willingly and we hope they leave somehow changed to some degree. ‘Rent’ is an infectious piece that speaks to human emotions and our existence with each other whether or not you can relate directly to the LGBT community, or living with HIV or AIDS, or being a struggling artist, or living in New York. ‘Rent’ has power because it uniquely opens people’s eyes to humanity.”
2. TERRIFIC PERFORMANCES
Under the fluidly astute direction of Evan Ensign, modeling his staging after original director Michael Grief while offering his own character-conscious vision, the terrific, vocally strong cast delivers the goods. In addition to the engaging, energetic and lyric-driven Jenkins, the principals include Coleman Cummings (a sensitive, conflicted Roger), Aiyana Smash (a dynamic Mimi possessing a beautifully husky R&B tone), Joshua Tavares (a sassy, elegant and kindhearted Angel) Shafiq Hicks (a vulnerable Tom Collins), Samantha Mbolekwa (a believably frustrated Joanne), Kelsee Sweigard (a fiery Maureen), and Juan Luis Espinal (an appropriately arrogant but not overbearing Benny). “Our cast is relatively young,” Jenkins admitted. “I’m 26, but we have cast members as young as 21 and 22. Some of them were very young or not even alive when ‘Rent’ opened. So, there is a big chunk of us who do not have those first-hand connections to the world we speak on. But what is able to keep the show resonating for people outside of the love for the music and the show itself is that the show still addresses what’s going in (today’s society). We’re still going through what these characters are going through from isolation to separation to segregation.”
3. KNOCKOUT MUSICAL NUMBERS
Larson’s remarkable pop/rock score contains numerous standouts memorably performed: Cummings’ introspective “One Song Glory,” Espinal’s deliciously flamboyant “Today 4 U,” Jenkins and Mbolekwa’s comical “Tango Maureen,” Hicks’ heart-wrenching “I’ll Cover You” (Reprise), Sweigard’s playfully kooky “Over the Moon,” Mbolekwa and Sweigard’s wonderfully defiant “Take Me or Leave Me,” and the entire company gathering for the delightfully liberating “La Vie Bohème” and reverent “Seasons of Love” featuring soloist Rayla Garske. Even so, Smash is a smash, offering an outstandingly fierce, encore-worthy “Out Tonight” complete with striking athleticism, fabulous catlike prowling, glittery hair-ography, and a few high kicks that would make the Rockettes very proud.
4. IMPRESSIVELY BALANCED SOUND
In the past, there have been tours of “Rent” that have suffered from technical issues. Either the onstage band was too loud and overpowered the cast or the band was too muted and hindered the cast’s ability to drive the passion within the show’s rock vibe. Here, sound designer Keith Caggiano impressively balances the cast and musical director Mark Binns’ top-notch musicians, an attribute not lost on those involved. “The way the music guides (many) of the show’s teachings is really beautiful,” Jenkins said. “For me, the music is another actor. I (regard) all the instruments as another actor. I listen to them closely because they are telling a part of the story we don’t get to speak on. If we let those influences come in, it helps us tell the story to the audience.”
5. THE LARSON LEGACY
There are certain musicals that will always be tied to their creators whether musically, choreographically or directorially. Due to Larson’s death at age 35 on the morning of “Rent’s” first preview performance off-Broadway, his legacy takes on greater emotional and cultural significance. The cast of this tour is grateful to be the latest storytellers passing on his monumental contribution. “It is a gift to tell this story,” Jenkins said. “This production pays homage to the original idea of the show even though it is two decades removed. I think Jonathan, who was psychic in many ways, would be surprised the show has had a life of its own.”