The Broadway in Atlanta series is presenting the 20th Anniversary national touring production of “Rent,” running at the Fox Theatre through Feb. 28 (take note: an extra three days, and better seats are available — for now, anyway).
Actually, “Rent” premiered on Broadway in 1996, 22 years ago, but it’s an extensive tour; don’t quibble.
Instead, like all good Rent-heads (super fans of the show), be grateful it’s here. It’s a first class, outstanding production; since it’s close to selling out, you should stop reading now and get tickets; then come back.
I love to recall that I saw the original cast in its final preview of “Rent” on April 27, 1996 (the Broadway opening night was April 29). It remains one of the most thrilling evenings I’ve ever spent in a theatre.
As you probably know, the composer and creator of “Rent,” 35-year-old Jonathan Larson, died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm on the first night of the Off-Broadway opening; thankfully, he did see the final rehearsal, and I like to think he knew he had done it.
His death both traumatized and electrified the cast. The final words in the show are “No day but today.” Suddenly life and art merged, and the cast jumped over the moon, as a line from “Rent” says.
Jonathan Larson was often asked, what’s “Rent” about? He came up with a succinct reply: “ ‘Rent’ is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century.” It’s set in New York’s East Village; the plot is loosely based on Puccini’s opera “La Bohème.”
Did you know if there had been no “Rent” there would have been no “Hamilton”? “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda saw “Rent” when he was 17 and has said: “ ‘Rent’ rocked my perception of what musical theatre could be. It was the first musical I had ever seen with a cast as diverse as the subway riders I saw on the way to school. It was the first musical I had ever seen that took place in the present day, and sounded like the present day. The characters were worried about the things I was worried about.”
“We begin.” Those are the show’s first words, spoken by Mark (Sammy Ferber), an aspiring filmmaker, to the audience and his roommate Roger (Kaleb Wells), an aspiring singer-songwriter and HIV positive ex-junkie. They live in a dilapidated loft, and they have an illegal wood burning stove—you get the picture. They also have burning ambition, and they believe “the opposite of war isn’t peace…it’s creation.” Roger dreams of writing one great song (“One Song Glory”) to leave behind.
But America isn’t kind to its struggling artists; only successful ones. As Mark is leaving to help his ex-girlfriend Maureen (Lyndie Moe—a singing, comic revelation) with a gig, Mimi (Yael Reich), a downstairs neighbor, shows up asking Roger to light her candle; the power has gone out. Mimi and Roger are instantly attracted to each other, with more in common than they know.
Ms. Reich seems a bit miscast: She is talented, but her big Broadway voice belies a delicacy and vulnerability that Mimi has, even in her famous “Out Tonight” number. Fortunately, she tones it down in the second act, especially when Mimi falls ill.
Meanwhile, the landlord Benny (Marcus John) shows up demanding rent money. An old friend, Tom Collins (Josh Walker) has been mugged and is helped by Angel (Aaron Alcaraz, an audience favorite), a street musician whose gentle kindness quite overwhelms Tom; it isn’t long before they’re in love.
The saucy Maureen, by the way, left Mark for Joanne (Jasmine Easler); their “Take Me or Leave Me” is a highlight in an evening of highlights.
If “La Vie Bohème,” a celebration of the bohemian life of artists, doesn’t get your toes tapping, you’d better consult your doctor. I’m sure you’ve heard of “Seasons of Love.”
Every actor I’ve mentioned is an accomplished, attractive, talented professional. The director is Evan Ensign; the original director is Michael Greif. Choreography is by Marlies Yearby; music supervision and additional arrangements are by Tim Weil. The book, music, and lyrics are by Jonathan Larson.
Okay, you know about the gigantic Fox. I was very fortunate last night; I had excellent seats, for which I’m very grateful. I think one enjoys the show more up close; but that’s not always possible. So we do the best we can. The sound, happily, is perfect.
“Rent” moves people. I ran into a former student (now a grown man) who has seen the show 20 times. And I thought I was a Rent-head! I was very moved, again, last night.
See it, even if you’ve seen it before. As Roger and Mimi tell us, “There’s only us, there’s only this; forget regret or life is yours to miss.”
For tickets and information, visit foxtheatre.org.