The touring company of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning rock musical “Rent” is back this week after a successful two-week run in 1998. The cast is better this time, and to someone who’s never seen it and is the right audience for it (no one will claim this show is for everyone), it will be an entertaining, powerful drama.
Written by Jonathan Larson, “Rent” is loosely based on the opera “La Boheme” and follows the lives of several young New Yorkers as they struggle with relationships, AIDS and their attempts to live a “bohemian” (that is, either “irresponsible” or “carefree,” depending on your point of view) lifestyle.
At the center is Mark (Matt Caplan), an amateur filmmaker whose actress girlfriend Maureen (Maggie Benjamin) has recently broken up with him to pursue a life of lesbianism with Joanne (Jacqueline B. Arnold). Though he doesn’t have the most stage time, it is Mark who gives the show its moral center, such as it is, and is probably the most sympathetic character, frequently a victim of circumstance as his friends’ situations grow worse.
His best friend and roommate, Roger (Christian Mena), is a an AIDS-stricken songwriter who gets involved with Mimi (Saycon Sengbloh), a dancer and junkie who is likewise afflicted. Their relationship is stormy, as is Maureen and Joanne’s; the only stable romance is between their friend Collins (Mark Richard Ford) and his transvestite boyfriend Angel (Shaun Earl).
Christian Mena has a clear, passionate voice that does Roger great justice; unfortunately, Mena is also too brooding and sulky to allow us access into the character’s thoughts. Maggie Benjamin’s Maureen is a feisty, funny addition, as is Shaun Earl’s silky-voiced Angel.
The songs range from the mundane to the poignant, the music usually all-out rock Ã…â€™n’ roll with some nice ballads, too. This is a show for the young, and it appeals to their sensibilities without pandering to them, offering a glimpse into a way of life that is both appealing and appalling.
This was the third time I'd seen the show, and it was the best cast. The first time was the previous tour mentioned in the review, where the man playing Roger treated the show like a rock concert, not a theatrical performance. The second time was on Broadway in 1999, and the performance I saw was mostly understudies, and it showed. I don't think this show is quite the brilliant piece of work many consider it to be, though I do acknowledge its importance in modern theater history. Many of the lyrics are downright stupid, though. (From the title song: "We're not gonna pay/Last year's rent/This year's rent/Next year's rent/Rent rent rent rent rent/We're not gonna pay rent/'Cause everything is rent.")