Review: ‘RENT’ lives on


Photo courtesy Shubert Theatre

Cast members of the Shubert Theatre’s production of “RENT” pose for a photo.

Rachel Erwin, news correspondent

Breathing new life into a well-known musical is often an impossible task, yet this is exactly what the cast and creative team of the 20th Anniversary Tour of “RENT” accomplished at the Boch Center’s Shubert Theatre Nov. 3. 

With a book, music and lyrics written by the late Jonathan Larson, “RENT is a celebration of the lives of impoverished artists fighting to endure and thrive within the harsh world of Lower Manhattan’s East Village at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s famous opera “La Bohème,” “RENT” is a rock musical that was revolutionary at the time of its Off-Broadway premiere in 1996. The production went on to win four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. 

Directed by Evan Ensign, this production felt energetic and refreshed from start to finish. The relationships between the eight principal characters are filled with love and depth, evidence that this cast bonded over their time together. Impressive chemistry is apparent between Collins (Shafiq Hicks), an MIT professor, and street drummer Angel (Joshua Tavares), whose romance faces boundless obstacles as a result of their AIDS diagnoses. The love between the pair felt raw and genuine, something that is often lacking in productions with a short rehearsal process as many national tours have. 

Though each cast member shines in their own way, the voices of all blend together to produce a powerful, jolting sound, which makes numbers like “Seasons of Love” and “La Vie Bohème” so impactful. Likewise, the presence of an orchestra onstage amplified the sound, which emphasized the importance of the rock aspect of this musical. It almost felt like attending a rock concert in a large stadium, adding to the sense of angst the characters felt. 

What is so fascinating about this cast is the fact that almost none are seasoned Broadway or national tour performers. Instead, many are young artists making their debuts on the professional stage. Despite this, they perform with a professionalism, spirit and passion that I have rarely seen before. 

Cody Jenkins, who plays awkward filmmaker and narrator Mark, has an explosive presence throughout the production. His nerdy energy is complimented by Roger (Coleman Cummings), whose portrayal of a grieving musician struggling to compose again is gut-wrenching and compelling. Their voices complement each other, making their powerhouse duet, “What You Own,” one of the highlights of the show. 

This production also brings a jaw-dropping trio of women with it. Maureen (Kelsee Sweigard), a bisexual performance artist, stuns with a stage presence and vocals that emphasize the power and dramatic nature of her character. Similarly, Joanne (Samantha Mbolekwa), a lawyer and Maureen’s girlfriend, matches her presence with soaring riffs and a fiery presence. Their relationship is meant to be a constant power struggle, and these two women are the embodiment of that. 

Mimi (Aiyana Smash), a young stripper who falls in love with Roger, is a true triple threat, and her ability to dance on top of mere bars on the set while belting flawlessly is admirable. The bond between her and Roger feels desperate and passionate, investing the audience in her survival by the end of the musical. 

Design is an element of this production that is not to be ignored. The set, designed by Paul Clay, is versatile and built with various levels, which allows the actors to play with height and makes the production dynamic. 

The lighting, designed by Jonathan Spencer, feels fluid. Lights placed on much of the set serve multiple purposes as both fires and Christmas lights. In addition, the characters frequently seem to just appear onstage as the lighting fades in. These are some of the smoothest transitions I have seen. 

Overall, Larson’s original message is still made relevant more than 20 years later. Living a full life while surrounded by darkness, disease and hardship is something we all grapple with at some point in our lives. The idea that we must “forget regret or life is [ours] to miss” is valuable, for we never know when the end may arrive. Larson would be proud to see that his production still persists, filled with artists who live in the moment as they recreate his masterpiece night after night. 

Seeing this production is a reminder that there is “no day but today” to love the people around us and discover what truly fulfills us as human beings. 

The 20th Anniversary tour of “RENT” runs through Nov. 10 at the Boch Center’s Shubert Theatre.