Rent is a musical so full of young energy, so brimming with creativity and passion and hope in the face of sorrow, that it’s tough to believe more than 19 years have passed since it became an overnight sensation — one that would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, earn millions and inspire a huge, enduring fan base.
It’s also hard to fathom that Jonathan Larson, the brilliant composer-lyricist who created Rent but died the night before it was to start previews at the New York Theatre Workshop, has been gone so long. It’s impossible not to imagine what might have followed had Larson lived, and the real-life tragedy of his loss flows like a theme played in a minor key throughout Rent.
Inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s opera La bohème, Rent has resurfaced in South Florida as a Slow Burn Theatre production. The company, which moves to the Broward Center next season, is doing Rent at the West Boca Performing Arts Theatre, then transferring it to the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center for a brief run.
Director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater has enlisted some of the region’s best musical theater talent, seasoned and up-and-coming, for his re-imagined Rent.
Most in the cast were kids or young teens when Rent debuted, so it’s intriguing to see how a new generation of performers tackles now-familiar roles. Under the musical direction of Caryl Fantel, the actors deliver fierce, satisfying vocals, though every so often the balance between the strong five-piece band and the singers is off just enough that lyrics get obscured.
If you happen to be new to Rent, doing a little pre-show boning up on the storyline isn’t a bad idea. Larson juggles multiple intertwining stories, and the show is far more moving if you get every detail. As in La bohème, the plot centers on young artists dealing with poverty, struggling to find success, searching for love — and being confronted with illness and death. Tuberculosis was the killer in Puccini’s day, HIV/AIDS in Larson’s, so the issue of how to make every day matter courses through Rent.
Fitzwater has cast his Rent very well.
As documentary filmmaker and narrator Mark Cohen, Mike Westrich anchors the company with a restless curiosity, bringing humor to Tango: Maureen and contributing to the haunting beauty of Goodbye, Love. Bruno Faria is rocker Roger, a damaged guy fearful of getting involved with the ailing wisp of a woman who comes knocking at his door. Abby Perkins plays Mimi, dancer and drug addict, and her duets with the magnetic Faria on Light My Candle and the heartbreaking Without You are glorious, as is his aching rendition of One Song Glory. As Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III, Mark and Roger’s scheming landlord (and a married guy who’s hot for Mimi), Rayner G. Garranchan is every inch the snake he’s supposed to be.
Deep-voiced Darrick Penny as Tom Collins, a radical professor and computer genius, and Bruno Vida as Angel Schunard, an ethereal and tenderhearted drag queen, live out the most tragic story in Rent. Both characters are living with AIDS, yet they know how to savor and embrace life. They joyfully bond as they sing I’ll Cover You, yet the song eventually becomes a mournful solo.
Carbonell Award winner Amy Miller Brennan and singer-actress Christina Alexander get to work some of the best comedic moments in Rent. Miller Brennan plays performance artist Maureen Johnson, whose solo Over the Moon is deliberately (and artfully) ridiculous, and Alexander is Maureen’s lover Joanne Jefferson, a woman just discovering what Maureen’s ex Mark knows only too well: The only person Maureen really loves is Maureen. The two rock out on a killer Take Me or Leave Me, and Alexander conveys Joanne’s uncertainty through Tango: Maureen and We’re Okay.
Seven ensemble members enrich the sound of Rent, turning up in multiple roles and different costumes (though a few times some take clothes off, which is maybe injecting a little too much of a Hair vibe into Rent). Rick Peña dresses the characters so that you grasp their style and economic circumstances from the get-go, and he has a blast interpreting Angel’s sartorial flair. Yet the clothing doesn’t always work for New York in the dead of an unheated winter, and a couple of the outfits are needlessly unflattering.
Sean McClelland’s imposing set, lit so vividly by Lance Blank, features walkways and platforms built around a massive clock face that hovers over the action as a reminder of precious time passing. It’s a physical embodiment of the show’s most famous song, Seasons of Love, which is about more, of course, than the 525,600 minutes that make up a year. Memorably, Rent and its creator remind us to savor the love, compassion and beauty in each moment of life even as we cope with all the rest.
If you go
What: ‘Rent’ by Jonathan Larson.
Where: West Boca Performing Arts Theatre, 12811 W. Glades Rd., Boca Raton, through April 26 (moves to Aventura Arts & Cultural Center, 3385 NE 188th St., Aventura, April 30-May 3).
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.
Cost: $24-$40 in Boca Raton, $40 and $45 at Aventura.