Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in the 1990s, Rent tells the story of a group of struggling young artists and friends set in Manhattan's seedy Alphabet City. The plot follows a fairly close group of eight people, including three couples, as they deal with love and loss over the course of a single year. Rent is based on the Puccini opera La Bohème but changes the opera's 1890s Paris setting to the grungy Lower East Side of Manhattan and uses the tragedy of AIDS as a modern replacement for tuberculosis, which the main female in the opera suffers from. The musical also uses "Musetta's Waltz" from the opera as a recurring theme.
Using an original concept by Billy Aronson, composer and bookwriter Jonathan Larson created characters that are lovable and also relatable and crafted an intricate yet also easy to follow plot and a score of varying song styles that features more than 40 tunes, including the break out hit "Seasons of Love." The show clearly struck a chord with musical theatre lovers and also drew in a whole new audience of young theatregoers. However, as rich and rewarding as the musical is, it also has a few rough patches, including some forced lyrics, slight confusion in a few narrative moments, and a couple of songs that aren't quite as good as the rest. These small shortcomings are mainly due to the fact that Larson died the night before the first performance of the Off-Broadway production so he never had a chance to fine tune the piece. Larson worked on the show for many years and wrote dozens of songs that were dropped along the way, so it's unfortunate he wasn't able to make any adjustments to make the show even better than it already is.
For the 20th anniversary tour, the original Tony-nominated direction by Michael Greif has been recreated by Evan Ensign, the original scenic design by Paul Clay has been adapted by Matthew E. Maraffi, and the production also uses Marlies Yearby's original choreography and Angela Wendt's original costume designs. Clay's minimalist scenic elements work very well in portraying the many locations in the musical which Greif used so effectively to stage the action. Ensign has managed to add a few original touches of humor and pathos to the tour, though he sticks very close to Grief's original direction when it comes to ensuring the characters are fully fleshed out individuals. Yearby's choreography is still fresh, lively, and as original as it was 20 years ago, and Wendt's costume designs are still colorful and creative knockouts that highlight both the originality of the character of Angel and also the economic level of each character.
Seeing those aspects of the original production so lovingly recreated should make any Rent fan happy, as well as provide a good basis for anyone new to the show with a clear understanding as to why it was such a groundbreaking production in its originality and theatricality. Jonathan Spencer's lighting design is sensational and new, though appears somewhat reminiscent of Blake Burba's original design, and the sound design by Keith Caggiano is superb and ensures every lyric and word of dialogue is clear, which isn't always easy to do in the large Gammage space. Musical director Matthew DeMaria achieves sensational notes and sounds from both the excellent five-piece band and the cast.
The energy and eagerness that all members of the touring cast bring to their parts makes them all quite effective, and fairly realistic, as these, mostly, young starving artists from the 1990s. Logan Marks is sweet and sincere as Mark, the somewhat narrator of the piece, and Joshua Bess beautifully evokes the pain, loss and loneliness of his roommate Roger, the ex-rocker drug addict. Deri'Andra Tucker infuses Mimi, the woman who falls for Roger, with a huge amount of raw emotion. All three have exceptional singing voices that bring plenty of emotion and intensity to their songs.
Javon King is sensational, with a soaring singing voice, as Angel, the endearing, smart and sassy drag queen, and Devinré Adams does well as Tom Collins, the man who forms a deep connection to and love for Angel, though his singing voice seems a bit reserved. Lyndie Moe is good, though maybe a bit too forceful and over the top, as Maureen, the performance artist who is Mark's ex, and Lencia Kebede is excellent, with a clear and well thought out portrayal, as Joanne, the intelligent lawyer who is dating Maureen. Xavier McKinnon is fine as Benjamin Coffin III, the show's main antagonist who shows some compassion in the second act, though he could be a bit more reserved, authoritative and meaner in the first act.
While Rent is now more than 20 years old and the topic of living with AIDS is now one with less of a stigma and death sentence attached to it, the themes the show presents of young people struggling to find their place in the world and a family of friends coming together to overcome their issues and celebrate life still resonate. Jonathan Larson's score is still energetic, timeless, raw and fun and this anniversary tour production is a loving testament to how moving and memorable this musical is and results in a highly enjoyable and emotionally effective piece of theatre.
Rent, through June 2, 2019, at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480-965-3434. For more information on the tour, www.rentontour.net.
Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
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