Monday, July 14, 2014

"RENT" at Lyric Arts

RENT gets me every time. Seeing it for the 14th time is just as thrilling, emotional, and epic as the first time I saw it 17 years ago. I can't even put into words why it has such a strong grip on my soul (and so many others'). It's just such a beautiful message of love, hope, community, and life, made all the more poignant by creator Jonathan Larson's untimely passing (or eerily timely - he died suddenly the night before the first Off-Broadway preview in 1996). Lyric Arts' new production is truly beautiful; the cast is energetic and talented, the sets and costumes have that cool rock show vibe, and the staging is different enough to make it feel fresh and original, but similar enough to the Broadway version to feel familiar to RENTheads like me. RENT is a brilliantly written piece of music-theater (it's one of only eight musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama), and Lyric Arts has done Jonathan Larson proud. I can think of no higher praise.

Jonathan Larson used the Puccini opera La Boheme as a framework to tell a story about a community of young artists living in Manhattan's Lower East Side and dealing with issues of poverty, identity, creativity, relationships, and AIDS. It's a story he lived (several of the characters are named after friends of his who died from AIDS), which is perhaps why it feels so real and vital. At the center of RENT are roommates Mark, a struggling filmmaker, and Roger, a rock musician still reeling from his recent HIV diagnosis. Into Roger's life comes Mimi, who convinces him that there is still life to live. Their friends include Mark's ex-girlfriend the performance artist Maureen, who is living with her new girlfriend, the lawyer Joanne; disgruntled college professor Collins; his new love the sweet transvestite Angel; and their old roommate Benny, who has sold out by marrying a rich woman and moving out and up. Over the course of a year these friends argue, love, break up, reunite, die, but most of all live. The characters in RENT don't have easy lives, but they cling to that life and each other because it's the only thing they have. How can a piece about death, disease, poverty, and drug abuse be so uplifting and inspiring? Because it cuts through all of the pain to celebrate the joy of life; that's the genius of it.

It must be challenging to take such an iconic piece of music-theater history and put your own spin on it so that it feels fresh and new, while still staying true to the beloved original work. But that's exactly what Lyric Arts has done. Matt McNabb's direction, Penelope Freeh's choreography, Brian J. Proball's scenic design, Stacey Palmer's costumes, and every one of the large ensemble's performances are familiar to the RENT world that I know and love, but have allowed me to experience it in a way I never have before. For example, I was shocked when the cast stood up during "La Vie Boheme" instead of doing the usual seated dance, but I loved it. The Lyric Arts stage has never looked cooler; they've knocked out all the walls and filled the stage space with scaffolding, pipes, stairs, graffiti, and the obligatory three long tables moved around the space to create various pieces of furniture. I only have one disappointment with the show, and that is the lack of racial diversity in the cast. While I don't think it's necessary to exactly match the racial composition of the original cast, I do think that diversity is a part of what makes RENT special, and is necessary to accurately represent the Lower East Side.

That being said, the show is very well cast. Kyler Chase is wonderfully charming and likeable as my favorite character Mark, our reliable narrator who describes the action he longs to feel a part of. Blake Rhiner* was born to play Roger. He's got killer pipes, looks like a rock star in skinny jeans, a leather jacket, and crazy hair, and is so passionate and angsty you can feel Roger's pain. Courtney Groves is fearless and vulnerable as Mimi. As on-again-off-again lovers Maureen and Joanne, Kendall Anne Thompson and Kate Beahen** are perfection; their duet "Take Me or Leave Me" is a highlight, and Kendall's beautifully ridiculous "Over the Moon" is something I've never seen before. Patrick Jones makes his welcome Minnesota debut as the tender-hearted Collins, and did his job by making me cry in the second act reprise of "I'll Cover You." I've always felt that Angel is the heart of the show, and Kyle Szarzynski fills that role well. Last but not least, Maurice Britts gives a strong performance as Benny, the one we love to hate. The ensemble members are all fun to watch, but special mention must be given to Molly Jo Hall for knocking it out of the park with the solo in "Seasons of Love." Chills.

For people who think that RENT is dated or no longer relevant, consider this: there are currently over a million people in the US living with (living with, living with, not dying from) HIV, with about 50,000 new cases every year. And the idea of living life to the fullest, being present in every moment, and loving the people around you can never go out of style. I commend Lyric Arts for taking on this challenging and important piece of music-theater, and for continuing to challenge their audience in a season that started with a beautiful (and somehow controversial) production of The Laramie Project. RENT needs to continue to be produced and seen. Jonathan Larson created something powerful and special, and the team at Lyric Arts have done the same with this new production. Get yourself out to Anoka by August 3 to see this wonderful creation. No day but today!

*I'm looking forward to watching Blake Rhiner bring his raw talent and passion to the role of Gabe in another Pulitzer Prize winning rock musical, Next to Normal, at Bloomington Civic Theatre this fall.
**If you need more evidence that Kate Beahen is a star, Peter Rothstein has cast her as the Baker's Wife in Theater Latte Da's production of Into the Woods next spring. Case closed.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.