For Rentheads, this production will leave you with all the feels, and it’s hard not to sing along with its interactive experience. The rock opera score by composer and lyricist Jonathan Larson is invigorating and if you are a diehard fan, you’ll want to sing along the entire time.
Energy emanated throughout the black box space-stage to reflect that of an industrial backdrop complete with an underground graffiti aesthetic. Festive Christmas lights and a rotating turn table are also central to the set design. Welcome to the East Village of New York, circa 1989. “Rent!” It’s the epitome of being against the grain, rebellion, and subcultures living on the fringes of society clashing with the elites. It’s their story, a story of the marginalized.
Beloved across genres expanding theatre circles, “Rent’s” groundbreaking novel debut in 1996 revolutionized the modern musical and with its mass appeal and relatability. With inspiration from Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme,” it shattered box office records for decades. Since its opening “Rent” has been going strong ever since.
I’ve watched numerous documentaries on Larson, who passed away too soon while in the prime of his career, and every story detailing his life shows that he truly imitated art after life. He lived in a hole in the wall, shoddy loft apartment working at the Moondance Diner while writing his hit musical, ultimately living the life of a starving artist.
His friends were thespians and artists coming from all walks of life, and New York was in political and economic turmoil from crime to the height of the AIDS epidemic. If you’ve seen Netflix’s “Tik Tik Boom,” it really paints an accurate picture of the type of ’90s nostalgia and world Larson inhabited every day. He wanted to write the next “Hair” of his generation, and he far exceeded that goal, single-handedly changing the face of musical theatre.
Based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” “Rent “retold the classic tale of the tragedy centered around 19th century bourgeoisie. In 1988 Larson was approached to revamp “La Boheme” into a rock musical. The poet Rodolpho became Roger, singer Musetta, Maureen, painter Marcello (Mark,) and state counselor Alcindoro was subsequently turned into Joanne. Schunard was transformed from a street musician to a drag queen. Philosopher Colline respectfully became Collins.
As we open, a functional camera shows us all the right angles of the set, capturing in real time both the audience and the cast. The little extra touches of this iconic production could only be masterfully executed and pulled off by director Stephen Santa and his team.
A diverse and inclusive ensemble rounds out the unified cast, doubling as multiple characters and great cameos such as Mark’s mom or the news producer Alexi Darling. The acting doesn’t miss a beat. We see fluid and solid performances for the entire duration of the two acts. Roger (Jesse White) seeks to write one last song as the brooding Roger as he struggles with his HIV positive diagnosis. It should be noted that White is the lead singer of an actual rock band, an appropriate choice of casting. In fact it would be an understatement to say that the entire cast isn’t perfectly suited in the portrayals of their characters.
Billy Ferguson as Mark Cohen is consistently dynamic throughout his entire performance with clear resonant tenor vocals. Isa Gott brings a youthful earnestness to Mimi, the exotic dancer and HIV positive drug addict. Gott’s “Out Tonight,” served a tantalizing display of sensuality, passion, and emotion.
Evelyn Hill as dramatic and over the top performance artist Maureen delivers a performance that can pierce the stratosphere. The girl can wail.
Brandi Mercedes Smith is a powerhouse as the tough as nails lawyer Joanne. She’s also Maureen’s new flame. Smith and Hill’s duet in “Take Me or Leave Me,” was an absolute stellar performance, showcasing their impressive pipes.
DJ Tyree as Collins and Wayne Hudson II have great, believable chemistry. Tyree’s soulful singing draws you in and Hudson II’s energetic portrayal of Angel is fun and polished.
With songs like “No Day But Today,” “Seasons of Love,” “I’ll Cover You,” “Take Me or Leave Me,” “Halloween,” “What You Own,” and “Your Eyes,” and of course the rousing company number, “Rent,” there’s so much to take in sonically and theatrically. What I especially enjoyed about this production is that it involved the audience in many unexpected ways, from confetti and balloons to seeing yourself reflected on the screen of the camera as it pans across the crowd.
Best moments: Evelyn’s wailing high note on “Seasons of Love.” Roger’s moment with Mimi in “Your Eyes,” is heartbreaking and raw, which I found to be deeply romantic. DJ Tyree’s “I’ll Cover You,” is a beautifully touching performance that will about move you to tears.
“Rent” has been sold out this entire run so if you get the chance don’t miss the last couple of performances of this hit musical at the Omaha Community Playhouse! Remaining performances run March 16-19th at the Howard Drew Theatre