Regional Reviews: San Diego
Set in Manhattan's East Village, a struggling filmmaker, Mark Cohen (Danny Harris Kornfeld), and his songwriting best friend Roger Davis (Kaleb Wells) live in an apartment that's far from paradise. While Mark has a relatively healthy lifestyle, Roger is practically a hermit who refuses to leave his home. He suffers from HIV/AIDS and is haunted by the suicide of his late girlfriend April. After a flirtatious conversation with a neighboring tenant, Mimi Marquez (Skyler Volpe), Roger slowly starts to find joy again.
Not a lot has changed in the staging of Rent since the mid-nineties. Director Evan Ensign mostly stays true to Michael Greif's original staging. He retains the sometimes-sensual choreography from Marlies Yearby, Paul Clay's gritty set, and Angela Wendt's urban costumes. Instead of being played for nostalgia, these elements feel fairly modern. While their work, along with Jonathan Spencer's lighting, is faithful to Rent's roots, the visuals contribute to ensemble numbers, like "Christmas Bells." The crew helps present a lengthy sequence where mini stories are happening all around the downtown stage. With subpar or excessively loud sound, the evening would be an endurance test. Fortunately, Keith Caggiano's audio is never overwhelming. Although the miking had occasional glitches on opening night, technical issues were few and far between throughout the 150-minute runtime.
None of the stars rely on the vocal stylings of the original leads. Less sarcastic and even friendlier than other depictions of Mark, Kornfeld displays charismatic confidence and vulnerable insecurity. He gets to take part in several enjoyable duets with other performers. Wells' vocals take a little bit more time to warm up to, because there are instances where his voice is uncontrollably raspy. By the time he croons "One Song Glory," his intensely sung interpretation starts to click. An ideal Mimi is someone who can appear simultaneously strong and weak. Volpe handles that balance well when singing tunes like "Another Day" and "Goodbye, Love." Aaron Harrington, David Merino, Jasmine Easler, and Katie LaMark hold their own playing LGBT New Yorkers close to Mark and Roger. Several subplots are just as moving as the adventures of the two main friends. Backing up the artists is a visible orchestra led by musical director/conductor/keyboardist Samuel Bagala. Every musician fuels energy to big melodies like "La Vie Boheme" and soft tunes like the popular company act two opener, "Seasons of Love."
Since Ensign's version is true to Greif's vision, audiences' reactions to Rent will mainly be based on how they view the tale in general. "Rentheads" love Larson's messages about making the most of every moment, not selling out, and finding inner growth, which are timeless and guaranteed to resonate with the audience. Younger viewers who have never watched Larson's megahit, and can handle mature content, should not miss the opportunity to see the event live. They'll have a better understanding of the impact that this phenomenon had on the theatre world. Indeed, without this cutting blend of '90s music, serious material, and diverse characters, popular shows such as Avenue Q, Spring Awakening, American Idiot and even Hamilton might not exist.
Two decades isn't a short period of time, but Rent continues to be an explosive look at a loving community. Larson will always be remembered through his triumphant accomplishment.
Broadway/San Diego presents Rent: 20th Anniversary Tour through January 15, 2017, at San Diego Civic Theatre. Performs through Sunday at 1100 3rd Avenue. Tickets start at $25.00 and can be purchased online at www.broadwaysd.com or by phone at 1-619-564-3000. For more information on the tour, visit rentontour.net.