RENT is Intense, Superb at the Carnegie
Review by Doug Iden
How much can your life change in the course of one year? Loosely based on the plot of the opera La Boheme, Rent portrays the interrelated lives of Bohemians living in gritty New York City while struggling with poverty, HIV/AIDS, disillusionment, broken dreams and the need to pay the rent. This is the second part of a bold reparatory theater concept by the Carnegie Theater which includes Into the Woods, which premiered last month, and an upcoming new musical about George Remus, the infamous bootlegger which was the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”. Many of the cast members of Rent were also in Into the Woods and will be in the George Remus musical.
Rent, with book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson which won both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for best musical, is episodic, following the lives of seven principal characters. On Christmas Eve, Roger (Jackson Reagin as a struggling musician and composer) and Mark (August Bagg as an aspiring filmmaker) are living in what they thought was a rent-free tenement in NYC’s Alphabet City. Suddenly, the power goes out and they are forced to survive in a frigid apartment using only candles for light. Their plight is joined by other cast-members who sing the title song, wondering “How are we going to pay the Rent?”.
Then, two iconic songs propel the plot. Afraid that he is about to die, Roger hopes to write one song that will preserve his legacy in “One Song Glory”. Downstairs neighbor Mimi (Ranease Brown as an exotic dancer and drug addict) knocks on the door seeking help. In the multi-meaning “Light My Candle” Mimi flirts with Roger. They are both attracted to each other but Roger has reservations.
Meanwhile, Angel (Jamal Stone) rescues Tom Collins (Sean Polk II as a professor) from a mugging. They are both immediately attracted to each other although both are infected with AIDS. Maureen (Sarah Jane Nelson as Mark’s ex-girlfriend and performance dancer) is a homeless activist who joins with lesbian attorney Joanne (Julia Schick who is also Assistant Director, Choreographer and Swing) in stirring up the neighborhood. The protest infuriates Mark and Roger’s ex-roommate Benny (Tayshawn Elliott) who now owns the building with an eye towards gentrification and was responsible for shutting off the power at the start of the show. Ensemble members playing a variety of characters include Tyler Martin, Julia Noelle Brosas, Madison Mosley, Eliza Levy and Nick Pattarini.
Joanne is frustrated with her girlfriend’s promiscuous behavior and shares her frustration with Mark in the “Tango: Maureen”. Angel, now in full drag as Mrs. Santa Claus, regales the nightclub audience in the electric “Today 4 U” featuring Stone as a break-dancer. Nelson gives a virtuoso performance when Maureen sings the scintillating and funny “Over the Moon”. As part of the act, they use the prop of the white cow from “Woods” as an inside joke. Angel and Collins voice their mutual love in “I’ll Cover You”. Not knowing how to communicate their joint love, Roger and Mimi sing “I Should Tell You”, but are incapable of doing so. The first act ends with the entire company singing the raucous homage to the opera which spawned the musical in La Vie Boheme.
The second act starts with the hit song and overarching theme of the show when the entire cast spans the stage and sings “Seasons of Love”. The entire first act is at Christmas but Act 2 covers the following year up to the next Christmas. One interesting gimmick of moving the story and filling in details is the joint use of voice mails sent by various characters (including a series of amusing comments by Mark’s mother), phone calls by the characters and direct narration to the audience, mostly by Mark.
Highlights of the second act include the hilarious love duel between Maureen and Joanne “Take Me or Leave Me”, the haunting love theme “Without You” sung individually and as a duet by Roger and Maureen, a reprise of “I’ll Cover You” by Collins and company at the death of Angel by AIDS and the introduction of Roger’s song to a sick Mimi “Your Eyes”. Several finales include snippets of other songs as the now re-established friendships and lovers converge on Christmas.
This is an intense story, mostly sung, with themes including sex, homosexuality, AIDS, professional frustrations, survival through any means but, at the end, features enduring friendship and love among a very diverse group of people.
Like Into the Woods, this show requires great singing, acting ability and exquisite timing both comically and dramatically. There are some heavy themes depicted but there is also a lot of humor, some dark in nature. The entire cast is extraordinary with special praise for Bagg, Brown, Nelson, Polk, Schick and Stone. The direction and choreography by Eric Byrd assisted by Schick is spot-on. The music directed by Steve Goers was good but too loud for me in the first act and tended to drown out the singers.
The set design by Tyler Gabbard is simple and uses the superstructure from Into the Woods which includes two stairways on either end of the stage with a balcony between them. Behind is a wall covered with socially conscious posters. Despite the poverty-stricken characters, the costumes by Allison Jones are varied from exotic dancing almost-clothes, to business suits to elaborate drag queen costumes, to coats, sweaters and scarves for the cold and Mimi’s garish boots.
Because of the subject matter and adult language, this is not always an easy show to watch but the majesty is worthwhile. The cast and production values are superb. As I was leaving the theater, I heard a woman say “you can’t beat CCM kids”. I agree.
So, grab your protest posters, out-of-tune guitar and hand-held camera while ensuring that you’ve paid your Rent running at the Carnegie Theater through August 26. Rent is playing simultaneously with Into The Woods and will be joined by George Remus, A New Musical on August 13. Get your tickets HERE.
Doug Iden is an avid, lifelong theater fan with an extensive collection of original cast albums. He also teaches classes on musical theater at OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute).