Wednesday, January 24, 2018

"Rent: 20th Anniversary Tour"

Rent: 20th Anniversary Tour
Jonathan Larson (Book, Music & Lyrics)

The Cast of Rent: 20th Anniversary Tour
A year ago, “Rent: 20th Anniversary Tour” rolled into San Francisco for a multi-week run at the Golden Gate Theatre, resulting in many rave reviews from critics and audience members alike (including this reviewer).  A year later, the tour that began in September 2016 in Bloomington, Indiana arrives for just a week at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts as part of the current Broadway San Jose season.  Since this is essentially the same show with only some changes here and there in key cast, the following is an update of my “Theatre Eddys” review from a year ago. 

Unfortunately, while the opening night still earned an immediate standing ovation and while I still found many things to like and several times to tear up with deep-felt emotion, there was not the consistent and sustained energy and electricity of the Golden Gate outing of February 2017. The San Jose show is particularly suffering from a venue’s sound system that left – especially in the first act – many of its brilliant, fast-spilled lyrics often unintelligible.  That is a shame and something that hopefully is corrected as the week progresses.  But overall, the integrity of this anniversary version remains; and my guess is that both veterans and newcomers to the show will still find much to relish.

And now for the updated review from February 9, 2017:

Twenty years ago, onto a Broadway stage burst a sexy, soaring musical daring to give unforgettable faces and personalities to seven artists struggling to survive not only their East Village poverty, but also the plague of AIDS/HIV that appeared ready to wipe out an entire generation.  Two decades later, Rent is no less relevant and timely than when it won multiple Tonys in 1996 (including Best Musical), as witnessed by the heart-warming and heart-breaking production now sixteen months into its national tour at Broadway San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts.  The characters and their stories that are largely based on Puccini’s 1896 opera La bohème still bring both laughter and tears in great quantity as they did in ’96; but in early 2018, the musical seems particularly apropos once again. 

Lines like “How do you document real life when real life is getting more like fiction each day?” sound sadly too current.  Scenes of ignored homeless on dirty, drug-laden streets mirror the scene throughout the Bay Area and beyond.  The threat of young artists losing their funky, warehouse abode is right off the headlines of today’s newspapers and social media.  The timing for this revival tour could not be more eerily perfect with its message that transcending all these very real and troubling issues is the power of unconditional love for all -- no matter gender preference, race, sexual orientation, economic status, or even if dying from society’s still most-shunned disease.

Not only was the dark subject matter of drug-using and hungry street people along with the subject of AIDS and its effects on New York’s artistic community startlingly bold when Rent premiered, other new ground was broken for the American Musical at the time.  Its rock opera approach introduced numbers sounding much like recitatives, arias, duets, and grand chorus numbers of Puccini’s original but done with electronic pulses and pounding beats that introduced a new generation to classical themes in a way that they could hear and understand.  The result in 2018 are musical numbers that have entered the Great American Songbook as classics and can be hummed and sung in well-know phrases by a generation that may or may not have even seen the original production in its twelve-year run on Broadway or all its tours.  “Seasons of Love,” “Another Day,” “La Vie Bohème,” and “Take Me or Leave Me” (among many others) and the ubiquitous “five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes” are now etched into our collective psyche forever.

Rent: 20th Anniversary Tour takes the original and updates it with neon-hued energy, freshness, and contemporary feel that zings and snaps from beginning to end.  Evan Ensign directs this large and talented cast with an eye to pushing those original, daring boundaries even further to edges that are raw, painful, and yet utterly beautiful.  The set of Paul Clay is massive in scope with its multiple and climbing levels of twisted metal and stairs against the Golden Gate’s back brick wall.  The lighting of Jonathan Spencer provides hints of Christmas against the dark dreariness of poverty and illness while offering looming, gigantic shadows that hint of the threats of abandonment, eviction, and death.  Angela Wendt’s costumes sparkle, shock, and satisfy all at the same time, bringing this old story a new look of today’s starving in the streets and hungry in the studios.

Kaleb Wells & Sammy Ferber
With his camera ever in hand, aspiring documentarian Mark sets out to record a year in the life of his current and former artistic roomies and their lovers and friends.  A strong-voiced, intense Sammy Ferber is joined by a stage full of his cohorts climbing, jumping, kicking, and literally flying in all directions while urging him on in “Rent,” singing in loud, rambunctious voices multiple protests of their plights: “We’re not gonna pay last year’s rent, this year’s rent, next year’s rent ... ‘Cause everything is rent.” 

Mark is still getting over his break-up with his old roomie and lover, Maureen, whose new girlfriend is Joanne (Jasmine Easler, also with great singing pipes and a member of the 2017 show in SF). The two rivals discover a surprising symbiosis of their common ills with the cheating, but highly seductive “diva” as they dance and sing with dramatic flair in “Tango Maureen.”  The focus of their past and present love is arranging a Christmas Eve benefit show to protest eviction of the homeless from a vacant lot where another former roomie, Benjamin Coffin III (a somewhat underwhelming Marcus John) wants to put up a new studio for artists. 

Lyndie Moe
The over-powering personality and attractive dynamism of Maureen eventually splashes in full body gyrations, hair-flinging dips, and over-the-top poses as Lyndie Moe sings in crazy ranges of voice her avant-garde rendition of the child’s rhyme, “Hey Diddle Diddle” in her stellar performance of “Over the Moon.”  As the year progresses and her relationship with Joanne begins to look like a yo-yo with their habitually attracting  and repelling each other.  However, the two come together for a sexual, sensual “Take Me or Leave Me.”  In doing so, they also provide a key theme and message of Rent, “Take me for what I am, for what I was meant to be.”

Skyler Vople & Kaleb Wells
Other pairs of lovers are equally impressive in the story’s telling.  Mark’s roommate, Roger, who is depressed about his HIV and a girlfriend’s recent suicide, strums repeatedly a few chords on his guitar in “One Song Glory” as Kaleb Wells introduces us to his captivating, soul-stirring vocals while he searches for “one song before this virus takes hold ... one song to redeem this empty life.”  Into his life comes a erotic dancer of seedy nightclubs, Mimi, shivering in the heatless, dark warehouse where they are both seeking refuge.  Mimi seeks a match to “Light My Candle” as well as Roger’s warm body for comfort.  With a voice that mixes teasing seduction, tongue-in-cheek humor, and starving desperation into one bundle of stellar performance, Skyler Volpe fails to win Roger this time; but she is not one to give up.  Her drive is fully witnessed as we see her dressed in skin-tight blue in a cheap club scene singing “Out Tonight” in a voice meant for Vegas while dancing as if making love to the balcony’s bars in front of her.  (Both Mr. Wells and Ms. Volpe are fortunately still with the tour as they were last January.)

The two will struggle to find their relationship equilibrium and will deliver some of the evening’s more heart-piercing, deeply emotional, and truth-telling numbers – ones like “Another Day” and “Without You” that are now iconic among the musical’s fans.  Each singer performs with a genuineness that reaches to the farthest, back seat in the balcony.  Kaleb Wells in particular brings rock-star quality time and again to his singing and probably has the best voice in a cast (as he also did a year ago in San Francisco).

Aaron Alcaraz & Josh Walker
A cross-dressing street drummer -- racked by AIDS and hunger -- finds an injured, mugged philosophy teacher on the street named Tom Collins, a friend of Mark’s and Roger’s.  There is immediate attraction between the giant of an African American man more teddy than grizzly in his huge form and the undersized, dangerously thin drag queen performer, Angel.  The story of their love and devotion is at the core of Rent’s emotional pull on its audience.  Josh Walker (Tom) and Angel (Aaron Alcaraz) deliver one of the musical’s best love songs, “I’ll Cover You,” in which Angel sings, “Live in my house, I’ll be your shelter” and Tom replies, “Open your door, I’ll be your tenant.”  Angel’s glittering red lips and outlandish elf attire and Tom’s look of lumberjack cement into a tender love that cannot help but inspire even the hardest of hearts.

To balance the gripping moments of personal, romantic, and social-issues drama threading throughout Rent are small and big numbers often full of humor and winks to the audience.  Homeless gather to sing about Christmas coming, always ending with a funny, but cynical remark comparing the world’s celebrating to their street-bound non-party.  Nasal-sounding mothers with aristocratic airs (Yale Reich and Chrissy Naruo) leave phone messages from far-away resorts to their almost-homeless and always-rebelling kids.  But it is when the whole cast executes with full gusto the gymnastic choreography of Marlies Yearby that fireworks truly happen.  The Last Supper imitation of twelve friends gathered in a café after Maureen’s concert on Christmas Eve is a fabulously produced rock number (“La Vie Bohème”) with its hilariously and precisely coordinated movements of necks, shoulders, fingers, heads, hips, and abdomens along with a dozen bodies gyrating in chairs, on and under the table, and over the entire floor.  

Twenty years have only made this then-hit once again a show still well worth seeing and current in its messages.  While the San Jose opening night had some hits-and-misses in terms of delivery that were absent a year ago, my guess is that these were due to venue and maybe some just to ongoing road wear-and-tear.  But there is still much to revel in the individual and collective performances, the brilliant script and sets of lyrics, and all of the still-memorable music of this current, touring Rent.

Rating: 3.5 E

Rent: 20th Anniversary Tour continues through January 28, 2018 at
the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts as part of Broadway San Jose, 255 South Almaden Boulevard, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at

Photo Credits: Carol Rosegg

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