Saturday, February 11, 2023

"RENT" by Theatre 55 at the Gremlin Theatre

I first fell in love with RENT in 1996 when I saw the original cast perform on the Tonys and all over TV (RENT was the Hamilton of the '90s). I had just graduated from college and was living on my own for the first time, so the story of young twenty-somethings trying to make their way in the world really resonated with me. I first saw the show in 1997 when the First National Tour came to the Ordway, and have seen it every time it's been in the Twin Cities (and twice in NYC). Now, 27 years and one "no day but today" tattoo later, the story continues to resonate with me, but in different ways. At a point in my life when I've lost loved ones, and it's likely that more than half of my todays are behind me, the theme of living for today, and the preciousness of life, only gets more poignant every day. It makes perfect sense to me, then, for a troupe of actors age 55 and older to embody these themes - a brilliant choice for Theatre 55, a company dedicated to "enriching the lives of elders as artists, audiences, and lifelong learners." If RENT's creator Jonathan Larson hadn't died tragically the night before the Off-Broadway opening, just shy of his 36th birthday, he'd be 63 today. Theatre 55's cast is made up of Jonathan's contemporaries, who, like him, lived through the early days of the AIDS crisis. I would tell you to go see this relevant, resonant, poignant, joyful, and utterly unique production of one of the 20th Century's best musicals, but they've sold out their entire short seven-show run. No day but today, indeed!

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 drag queen 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.*

Richard Hitchler directs the cast of mostly non-professional actors, who make up for in heart and enthusiasm what they lack in experience and training. It's a larger cast than usual, our eight friends plus 12 ensemble members, but that only makes the world feel richer and fuller. They fill up the Gremlin's thrust stage without feeling crowded, the actors lining all three sides of the stage during "Seasons of Love." It's probably the most intimate space in which I've ever seen RENT, and it's wonderful to feel that up close and personal with the story. Just a couple of benches, boxes, and crates serve as set pieces, and the actors are dressed in costumes that hint at the iconic originals, still fun and sexy while being more age appropriate. Music Director Shirley Mier leads the on-stage four-piece band and large cast through this mostly sung-through musical, and despite a missed word or line here or there, it sounds great with real emotion behind it. Only the leads are miked, with the unmiked ensemble creating a beautiful full and balanced chorus sound in the intimate space. (Costume design by Alicia Vegell, props design by Marc Berg, sound design by Pillip O'Toole.)

Jeff Goodson is a wonderful narrator as Mark, leading us through the story with his now even more poignant commentary. His friendship with Gary David Keast's Roger is believable, and Gary has that broody rocker energy, tempered with a little more wisdom and experience (his expression while referring to himself as "a young man" is perfect, and very relatable for anyone who ever looked in the mirror and saw someone older than they think they are). Lisa Ramos has the fire and desperation of Mimi, and their romance is extra lovely when viewed as two people finding each other later in life. Bebe Keith has the zany energy of Maureen, with a hilarious "Over the Moon" performance, even if she does talk-sing through most of the show (it sounded like she was perhaps losing her voice). Brenda Starr is a perfect Joanne, and holds up the singing end of their duet. Brian Driscoll is an appropriately jerky Benny, with a hint of the friend he used to be. And saving the best for last, Rik Kutcher and Lawrence Hutera are perhaps the sweetest Collins and Angel I've ever seen. You can read about Rik's connection with the piece here, and he perfectly embodies the big- and broken-hearted Collins with his beautifully deep voice. 73-year-old Lawrence, who wowed last year as Frank 'N' Furter in Rocky Horror, here shows us a softer drag queen, one with experience, patience, and love for her friends (and even those who aren't). Their "I'll Cover You" duet is a highlight.

Rik Kutcher and Lawrence Hutera as Collins and Angel
(photo by Renee Jones Schneider for the StarTribune)
Even though I somehow missed Angel's death (they skipped the song "Contact," Angel's swan song, so I think it happened during "Without You" when I was focusing my attention on Mimi and Roger), the funeral scene and "I'll Cover You" reprise is still one of the most emotional moments of the show. Also tears-inducing is the gorgeous in-the-round "Will I?" The words "will I lose my dignity, will someone care," have never felt more real and poignant than when sung by people in their 50s, 60, and 70s, because that's a fear that increases as you get older. Homelessness, drug addiction, poverty, living with a debilitating disease, these are all things that our older population know all too well.

This was my 17th time seeing RENT, and it still gets me every time. This time perhaps even more so, perhaps because of my life experiences over the past 27 years, and because of the life experiences that each one of the performers brought to the stage. Our elders have a lot to teach us, if only we would listen. Richard announced that their next production will be A Chorus Line, outdoors in Caponi Art Park. I bet this generation has a lot to say about "what they did for love." Follow Theatre 55 on Facebook for updates on upcoming shows (and get your tickets early).

*Plot summary borrowed from my reviews of previous productions.


Join me and my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers for a special event at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres! Get $20 off the ticket price for the March 4 matinee performance of the regional premiere of the super fun and heart-warming musical THE PROM, and stick around after the show for a talk-back with some of the cast. Find more info in the Facebook event here, and purchase discount tickets using code TCTB1 or by clicking on this link (discount valid for March 4 1pm performance only).