“Take me for what I am. Who I was meant to be.” So sings Maureen in one of RENT’s most famous ballads. Those famous lyrics are also perfect advice for people headed to the National Theatre for the iconic musical’s 20th Anniversary Tour. Sure it’s a little rough around the edges, but if you take this for “what it’s meant to be” – a fun and feisty remounting, featuring an energetic young cast – you’re in for a treat.
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The show opens on a stage cluttered with scaffolding and a giant metalwork Christmas tree , establishing the run-down artist mecca in NYC’s East Village where the cast resides. Struggling filmmaker Mark (the kinetic Cody Jenkins) and his equally struggling musician roommate Roger (Coleman Cummings) strategize about how to pay – what else – their rent. As the power in their flickers on and off, we get the first taste of Jenkins and Cummings’ winning chemistry. Jenkins’s wiry energy is infectious as he narrates the scene and tries to capture everything through Mark’s camera, in the hopes it will turn into the next great indie film. Meanwhile, Cummings convincingly channels a sensitive alt-rocker from the “MTV Unplugged” days. His plaintive, piercing rendition of Roger’s ballad “One Song Glory” recalls early 2000’s emo-rock sensation Dashboard Confessional.
Soon, exotic dancer Mimi enters, with her sights locked on Roger like a heat seeking missile. Rayla Garske brings a sassy, almost reckless abandon to the role, throwing herself around the stage and occasionally oversinging Mimi’s vocal runs. But Garske’s approach still works for a character who’s always in search of that next high, always teetering on the edge of collapse. Her energy clashes with Cummings’ soft-spoken take on Roger in their touching duet “Light My Candle”, which previews a teary reunion later in the show.
Joshua Tavares bursts onto the stage to lighten the mood as fan favorite Angel Schunard, a drag queen and street drummer with a knack for eye-popping street fashion. After a fine debut earlier in Act I, Tavares nails Angel’s signature “Today 4 You” number. It’s a tough assignment, requiring furious gyrations, high leg kicks, and drumming all over the stage. Tavares pulls through by relying on undeniable charisma built upon his megawatt smile.
The cast ably cycles through upbeat numbers like “Tango Maureen”, “Out Tonight”, and “Santa Fe”, as the characters prepare for a big protest of the closure of their artist lofts. Angel and new boyfriend Tom Collins (the affable Shafiq Hicks) express their mutual commitment in a touching rendition of “I’ll Cover You”. Tavares and Hicks revel in a totally natural affection as they revel in a simple love uncluttered by belongings or hangups. Theirs is the most believable relationship in the show.
Act I reaches its climax at the artist protest, headlined by the nutty “Over the Moon” number by performance artist Maureen (Kelsee Sweigard). Sweigard carves her own path from Idina Menzel’s original version by adding a frantic, slapstick vibe, and it works. The audience was hooting, hollering, and moo-ing along at her wide-eyed, Jim Carrey-like performance. Act I wraps up with “La Vie Boheme”, a defiant, whole-cast celebration of the artist life, interspersed with Roger and Mimi’s touching duet “I Should Tell You”, which highlights Cummings and Garske’s strengthening chemistry.
Act II opens with the iconic “Seasons of Love”, where the cast urges the audience to measure a year of your life in terms of love shared, rather than time. Yes, the number with “Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.” Sure it’s cheesy, but here it feels like comfort food: not fancy, but well prepared and emotionally filling.
The calendar turns from Christmas to New Year’s to Valentine’s Day, and the cast reaches a truce with building owner Benny (Juan Luis Espinal) to keep their artist lofts open. The main characters deal with relationship troubles, from a love triangle between Mimi, Benny, and Mark to Maureen and Joanne’s (Samantha Mbolekwa) feuding in the aforementioned “Take Me or Leave Me”. Mbolekwa and Sweigard try to out-belt each other in a feisty duel of powerhouse sopranos.
RENT closes November 17, 2019. Details and tickets
As they watch Angel’s health decline precipitously from AIDS complications, Cummings and Garske come together nicely for Roger and Mimi’s heartbreaking “Without You” (my favorite song from Rent). And when tragedy strikes, Hicks transfixes the audience with Tom Collins’ tearful reprise of “I’ll Cover You.” After a somewhat shaky vocal start, Hicks removes any doubt that he has the goods.
After the group of bohemians dwindles and fractures from health and professional troubles, the cast finally pulls together for a chance at redemption. Roger’s long awaited magnum opus “Your Eyes” isn’t a great song even compared to the rest of the musical, sounding more like a forgotten B side off an old Poison album. Still Cummings delivers it well, with all the rocker angst he can muster. The stronger “Finale (No Day But Today)” gives the whole cast a soaring closer to bite into, backed by shredding electric guitar.
With the normal caveats about how polarizing RENT can be, this is nonetheless a really fun night of theater. Energetic performers place their own stamp on an iconic song list (warts and all), helped by a stage band that can really shred. Get past some early stumbles and don’t think too hard about the plot, and you’re left with the simple joy of watching a talented, young cast sing the virtues of art, freedom, community, and love.
RENT by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Evan Ensign, based on original direction by Michael Greif. With Coleman Cummings, Cody Jenkins, Shafiq Hicks, Juan Luis Espinal, Samantha Mbolekwa, Joshua Tavares, Aiyana Smash, Kelsee Sweigard, Lexi Greene, Benjamin H. Moore, Rayla Garske, Stephen Rochet Lopez, James Schoppe, Zare Anguay, and Ysabel Jasa. Set design: Paul Clay. Costume design: Angela Wendt. Lighting design: Jonathan Spencer. Sound design: Keith Caggiano. Musical arrangements: Steve Skinner. Original concept and lyrics: Billy Aronson. Dramaturg: Lynn M. Thompson. Musical direction: Mark Binns. Set design adaptation: Matthew E. Maraffi. Production stage manager: Gabrielle Norris. Choreography: Marlies Yearby. Musical supervision and additional arrangements: Tim Weil. Produced by Work Light Productions. Reviewed by Ben Demers.