Rent the musical still resonates after 20 years and a world of changes
Think of all that has changed since Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent debuted in 1996: cell phones and constant connectivity, LGBT acceptance, how an HIV diagnosis now doesn't automatically mean a death sentence. So despite our living in a radically different landscape, it's remarkable that Mark, Roger, Mimi, and Angel are not only still relevant, but still affecting.
At least they are in the 20th anniversary national tour, which hits Dallas early in its nearly 70-city schedule. It's a non-equity production, cast with actors who mostly weren't even alive when Rent first rocked Off-Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop in 1993.
But if they view the musical as a time capsule, it doesn't show. Under Evan Ensign's direction (which is based on Michael Greif's original work), this tale of friendship, love, addiction, and death is still just as arresting as it was two decades ago.
Perhaps it helps that Work Light Productions has used/adapted the now-iconic design of the original production. There's Mark's striped scarf, Mimi's blue rubber pants, the pink fuzzy bra top on that one ensemble member. The junk tower scaffolding still serves as a rather sweet Christmas tree for Angel and Collins, and the five-piece band is still rocking out under the platform on stage right.
Ensign and choreographer Marlies Yearby also didn't mess with the line of actors belting out "Seasons of Love" at the top of act II. Even if you're not familiar with the show, chances are you've seen or heard of this moment.
Though the direction has ensured that the overall feel is identical to the original, the actors bring a fresh energy to their characters, who themselves are young bohemians pursuing their art in New York City's East Village. For non-Rentheads, Larson based his story on Puccini's tragic opera La Bohème. There's a handy chart in the program explaining how each person is connected, but if you're at all familiar with the opera you'll see hints of Rodolfo the poet, Marcello the painter, and Colline the philospher, among others.
Here, Mark (Danny Harris Kornfeld) is an endearing narrator, capturing his friends' adventures through the lens of his old-fashioned camera. Twenty years later there's a touch of hipster to Mark, but without the groaning annoyance. His roommate, the tortured musician Roger (Kaleb Wells, more sulky than edgy), meets and falls in love with exotic dancer Mimi (Skler Volpe), who's still being pursued by her yuppie ex-boyfriend Benny (Christian Thompson, lacking in the douchebag department).
Jasmine Easler adds warmth and humor to Joanne, a character that's often trampled on by her more glamorous cohort — she's the new girlfriend of the outré performance artist Maureen (Katie LaMark), who also happens to be Mark's recent ex.
Aaron Harrington, with his rich voice and easy demeanor, gives gravitas to the anarchist philosopher Tom Collins, who finds love unexpectedly with drag queen Angel Schunard (played with just enough restraint by David Merino). Often Angel is an over-the-top caricature, played for exoticism to a crowd that may not have ever met such a person before. But in today's world, he's just another human who's struggling to remain true to himself while finding his way in the world. That's one thing that's certainly improved over time.
The national tour of Rent plays at the Winspear Opera House through October 2.