The 20th anniversary tour of Rent, the 1996 Off-Broadway and Broadway and 1998 West End rock opera that changed the face of musicals in general, is back at the Durham Performing Arts Center by popular demand; and the audience couldn’t be happier. With an energetic cast and recognizable music, such as “Seasons of Love,” this Tony Award®- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical transcends time and reaches deep into the human soul; and the 20th anniversary tour reminds us why we fell in love with this show in the first place.
Jonathan Larson (1960-96), who wrote the book, music, and lyrics that are now world known, has a personal story that is just as compelling as this masterpiece. Like the characters, he lived in a loft with no heat and roommates who were creatives, as he was.
But the idea for this musical didn’t arrive holistically from that experience. Instead, Larson was contacted by the playwright Billy Aronson, who had an idea for a modern update of the 1896 Giacomo Puccini opera, La Bohème.
The agreement between them was that if the play (ultimately based on Larson’s experiences) made it to Broadway, Aronson would allow Larson to make Rent his own, but Aronson would share in the proceeds. Sadly, Larson never experienced the wide acclaim his musical received. He passed away in 1996 on the morning of his play’s first preview performance Off Broadway. Larson was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer, Tony, and OBIE awards for his work; and presumably, he would have been proud to realize that his work made such a difference in the world.
The story of seven artists who live — and die — during the year over which the musical takes place is timeless. The struggle to survive artistically is a common one; but combine that with the financial and emotional hardships that all of them encounter, and the narrative becomes a tragedy.
The audience constantly cheers for each of them in turn: the HIV-positive musician Roger Davis (Coleman Cummings); the aspiring filmmaker Mark Cohen (Cody Jenkins); the college prof and activist Tom Collins (Shafiq Hicks); the HIV-positive drag queen and busker Angel Schunard (Joshua Tavares); the drug-addicted exotic dancer Mimi Marquez (Aiyana Smash); the provocative, bisexual performance artist Maureen Johnson (Kelsee Sweigard); the Harvard Law grad in love with Maureen Joanne Jefferson (Samantha Mbolekwa); and the landlord and friend of the roomies Benjamin Coffin III (Juan Luis Espinal).
Though the DPAC performance bursts onto stage with music and song, the sound is hurtfully loud (an issue that is seemingly resolved during the second half), which often makes it difficult to hear the lyrics the characters sing. Some of the actors reach out of their range, often screeching, and making them appear off-key. There are, however, many strong moments and natural stars that emerge during this production (caveat: this reviewer has seen several different versions of this musical).
Joshua Tavares, in his national-tour debut, brings a lightness to his role of Angel from the moment he comes out of the shadows to ask Tom Collins, “Are you okay, honey?” Tavares isn’t the strongest singer, but his sympathetic qualities and his pacing bring a roundness to the character — and his leaps in four-inch heels are phenomenal.
Another actor to watch is Shafiq Hicks, who literally brought the audience to pin-drop silence during his moving solo “I’ll Cover You,” as his character, Collins, grieves over the loss of the love of his life, Angel. The tenderness with which they treat each other, as well as their ability to reach beyond the stage lights to grab us by the heartstrings, make the show worthwhile.
This play is all about relationships, and one of the most important is the narrating character, Mark, and his best friend, Roger. Actors Coleman Cummings and Cody Jenkins as Roger and Mark have some moments; but for the most part, their chemistry appears stiff, and their singing isn’t as in sync as the other actors.
That is not the case when Roger connects with Mimi. Aiyana Smash is slight and spicy; but early on in the show, she reveals a vulnerability that Roger recognizes and loves. So does the audience, and it is her performance as the fragile drug addict who can’t kick her disease that elicits some of the most tender moments. In “Without You,” her duet with Roger, her voice crackles with emotion as Roger and Mimi struggle with their relationship.
Rent is unforgettable. The characters get under your skin, revealing their insecurities and pains as they struggle to find their place in a world fraught with challenges that are not simply financial. It’s a story about love, about New York City, about friendship and creativity; but most of all, it’s a story about being strong enough to survive. If for no other reason, that is the one that keeps the show alive.
If you haven’t seen it yet, Rent will continue at DPAC through Sunday, Feb. 2nd, so go and find your own season of love (and bring some tissues).
SECOND OPINION: Jan. 29th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2020/01/dpacs-production-of-the-20th-anniversary-tour-of-rent-proves-that-love-endures-all/; Jan. 27th Cary, NC RDU on Stage interview with actress Aiyana Smash, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://rduonstage.com/2020/01/27/feature-rents-aiyana-smash-is-living-la-vie-boheme/; Jan. 27th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com interview with actor Joshua Tavares, conducted by “Out and About” editor Kathy Hanrahan for “What’s on Tap”: https://www.wral.com/from-backing-up-aretha-to-rent-in-durham-actor-talks-first-national-tour/18912634/; and Jan. 24th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh interview with actor Shafiq Hicks, conducted by Nicole Ackman: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Interview-Joshua-Tavares-of-RENT-on-Tour-20200124; and Jan. 21st Raleigh, NC News & Observer Mini-Preview by Melissa Howsam: https://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article239447093.html.
The Durham Performing Arts Center presents RENT: 20TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29 and 30, 8 p.m. Jan. 31, 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 1, and 1 and 7 p.m. Feb. 2 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.
TICKETS: $34.50-$89.50, plus taxes and fees. Click here to enter the digital lottery for $25 tickets.
DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787), email@example.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/where-to-buy.
Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or https://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/369510/2212138.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/281-0587, Groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/group-services.
SHOW: https://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/rent-1 and https://www.facebook.com/events/2326996474190816/.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkGwDMfEHG_gakuxAF59ciA/videos.
DPAC NEWS RELEASE: https://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/rent-20th-anniversary-tour-returns-to-dpac-due-to-popular-demand.
DPAC‘S “WRAL GREATEST HITS OF BROADWAY” SERIES: https://www.dpacnc.com/events/category/broadway.
THE TOUR: https://www.rentontour.net/, https://www.facebook.com/RentOnTour, https://www.instagram.com/rentontour/, https://twitter.com/rentontour, and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkGwDMfEHG_gakuxAF59ciA.
TOUR CAST & CREATIVE TEAM: https://www.rentontour.net/#s-company.
PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.dpacnc.com/, https://www.facebook.com/DPACNC, https://www.instagram.com/dpacnc/, https://twitter.com/DPAC, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Performing_Arts_Center, and https://www.youtube.com/user/DPACLive.
Rent (1996 Off-Broadway and Broadway and 1998 West End rock opera):https://www.rentontour.net/ (official tour website), http://www.mtishows.com/rent (Music Theatre International), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/534 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/rent-7448 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rent_(musical) (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Jonathan Larson (White Plains, NY-born composer, lyricist, and playwright, 1960-96): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jonathan-Larson (Encyclopædia Britannica), http://swirsky.tripod.com/jonathan.html (unofficial site by Chris Matthias), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/938 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/jonathan-larson-6927 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1170227/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Larson (Wikipedia).
Rent (2005 film):http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/rent/ (official website), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0294870/ (Internet Movie Database), http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/624677/Rent/ (Turner Classic Movies), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rent_(film) (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is the award-winning author of The Mourning Parade, as well as other novels, children’s books, nonfiction books, essays, short stories, poems, and articles. She is the creator of The Writer’s Hand Journals and runs workshops on using journals in every walk of life. A Fulbright Scholar, she holds the MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, and the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Union Institute and University. She lives in Durham with her dog, Izzy. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.