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Rent Celebrates Its 20th Anniversary and Still Rocks DPAC Like It’s 1996!

<em>Rent: 20th Anniversary Tour</em> will rock the Durham Performing Arts Center (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Rent: 20th Anniversary Tour will rock the Durham Performing Arts Center (photo by Carol Rosegg)

In the world of rock operas, 20 years (two decades) can knock the relevance out of a story line, but Jonathan Larson’s Rent is as fresh and relevant on its 20th Anniversary Tour, now in residence at the Durham Performing Arts Center, as it was when it first delighted Broadway’s hip audiences. Tuesday’s opening-night performance delighted the DPAC audience with incredibly talented actors bringing the house down with songs such as “Seasons of Love” and “La Vie Boehme.”

The show’s eight Durham performances run Oct. 11-16, giving Triangle audiences a chance to experience first-hand the high-energy show about seven artistic friends who live and make love and art in New York’s Alphabet City. Based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera, opera La bohème, the story follows a group of creative friends as they deal with the turmoil of a year of successes and disappointments, beginnings and endings, heartbreak and happiness. It is the humanity of the play that has kept it on stages for the past two decades, and it is that reach the show makes into audience’s hearts that makes it continue to be relevant.

With a few minor changes (i.e., adding a reference to a cell phone), the musical maintains its classic jabs at parents who worry about their teenagers’ first foray into the world. The musical’s overall theme might be even more contemporary now than many of the currently produced musicals.

It is the characters that determine whether a narrative reaches its audience’s heart. The music can be beautiful, the dancing might be intricate and polished, and the sets may sparkle like a handful of diamonds; but if the characters are not likable, approachable, and understandable, an audience will walk out of the theater and never remember that fabulous music and the athletic dancing.

David Merino dazzles as drag queen Angel Dumott Schunard in the <em>Rent: 20th Anniversary Tour</em> (photo by Carol Rosegg)

David Merino dazzles as drag queen Angel Dumott Schunard in the Rent: 20th Anniversary Tour, now playing at DPAC (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Rent’s ensemble of characters is one of the most memorable. You only have to see the play once to remember the drug-addict/exotic dancer Mimi Marquez (played with volcanic energy by Skyler Volpe) or the AIDS-infected gay couple madly in love, Tom Collins (played by Durham native Aaron Harrington, who brought down the house every time his rich baritone soared into the rafters) and Angel Dumott Schunard, the perpetually happy 19-year-old drag queen (enthusiastically portrayed by David Merino, who executed leaps in 5-inch-high heels that made him look like he defied gravity).

The show centers around two friends and roommates have no money to pay the past year’s rent on their apartment, now owned by their once-friend, Benny (portrayed by Christian Thompson, who brings a thin sternness to the role); but they still have dreams. Mark (Danny Harris Kornfeld) dreams of finding fame and fortune with the videos that he produces daily, with his friends as his favorite subject. Roger (Kaleb Wells) struggles to write music while dealing with depression about his own HIV infection.

The songs that Roger and Mark deliver in character speak of dreams to leave their apartment, to start anew elsewhere, and to find the love of their lives. They deliver those songs as rock anthems, often stretching the limits of their vocal chords to provide power to the lyrics and screaming or singing a bit on the sharp side. The actors in this troupe who received spontaneous applause were the ones who tempered their performances and simply let their voices soar rather than pushing for a booming high note.

Love is the most important thing to this band of artists, and relationships shift and change as the year goes by. Mark still stuggles with the heartbreak that he has endured as a result of his breakup with the dynamic bisexual performance artist Maureen (Katie LaMark).

Maureen and her new girlfriend, Joanne (played with a sweetly bewildered attitude by Jasmine Easler), deal with infidelities and jealousies. Roger deals with heartbreak, and Tom and Angel deal with the reality that AIDS kills. Love isn’t going to save this band of friends from the reality of the deadly disease that has taken so many talented people, nor will it save them from the reality that they cannot continue to live in a rent-free in their friend Benny’s building.

When you think about the storyline for this play and the challenges faced by its characters, it’s rather dark. Most of the characters are deathly ill with a disease that takes no prisoners, they all have major hurdles to overcome, and they live in a place without basic necessities such as heat and good food. Yet these young creators are still positive and still face their daily trials and tribulations with a smile and a gaze toward the future; but, as with every earthly inhabitant, life always includes death.

The beauty of this version of Rent is not in its voices (though some are strong and memorable, others were fairly pitchy on opening night) or in its staging (which is rather cramped, largely because of the musical instruments taking up a wide corner), but in its story. There isn’t a dry eye when Angel leaves the stage wrapped in a long white sheet, and Puccini would have been pleased that La bohème’s group of bohemians living in Paris’s Latin Quarter could be reinterpreted in such a contemporary manner.

This special anniversary edition of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award®-winning musical Rent will be at the Durham Performing Arts Center for only a few more days. Join the millions who have already learned what it’s like to be a creative bohemian in New York’s East Side, and marvel at the determination that it takes to be a starving artist.

<em>Rent</em> stars Skyler Volpe as exotic dancer Mimi Marquez and Kaleb Wells as singer-songwriter and guitarist Roger Davis (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Rent stars Skyler Volpe as exotic dancer Mimi Marquez and Kaleb Wells as singer-songwriter and guitarist Roger Davis (photo by Carol Rosegg)

SECOND OPINION: Oct. 12th Durham, NC Herald-Sun review by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: and Oct. 9th preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: (Note: You must subscribe to read these articles); Oct. 12th Burlington, NC Times-News review by Rachel Teseneer for “Teens & Twenties”: and Oct. 5th preview by Rachel Teseneer for “Teens & Twenties”:; Oct. 8th Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Roy C. Dicks:; Sept. 21st Raleigh, NC Raleigh preview by Taryn Oesch:; and Sept. 12th New York, NY preview by Adam Hetrick: (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 11th Triangle Review preview (Part 1: General Overview) by Robert W. McDowell, click

The Durham Performing Arts Center presents RENT: 20TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 12 and 13, 8 p.m. Oct. 14, 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 15, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 16 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.

TICKETS: $30-$135. Click here for DPAC Special Offers.


DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787),, or

Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/281-0587,, or

SHOW: and


THE TOUR:,, and








Rent (Off-Broadway and Broadway and 1998 West End musical): (Music Theatre International), (Internet Off-Broadway Database), (Internet Broadway Database), and (Wikipedia).

Jonathan Larson (White Plains, NY-born composer, lyricist, and playwright, 1960-96): (unofficial site by Chris Matthias), (Internet Off-Broadway Database), (Internet Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).

The Script: (Google Books).

Study Guide: (Denver Center for the Performing Arts).

Rent (2005 film): (official website), (Internet Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).


Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater, music, and dance reviews. She is also a writer, editor, writing coach at Reno’s Literary Services of Durham. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click To read more of her writings, click and

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