The national touring production of the musical "Rent," now playing at Shea’s, is powerful and beautiful. The youthful cast embraces the story and the music with the roar of a jet engine. Their fully committed performances and terrific voices make the material seem as fresh and vital as when I first heard it.
This is billed as the 20th Anniversary Tour. My memories of the original 1996 Broadway production remind me of just how much has changed since the time when AIDS was a terror and people used pay phones. I am also reminded of just how influential Jonathan Larson’s rock vision of young artists facing their fears in New York City at the time of AIDS really was.
Conventional wisdom has it that tragedy is not popular today, but this is obviously untrue in the musical theater, where soaring rock and rap melodies frequently allow us to indulge in the heightened and ennobling emotions of tragedy. With the opening of "Rent" on Tuesday, Shea’s has hosted back-to-back musicals inspired by tragic Puccini operas. "Miss Saigon" was based on "Madama Butterfly." "Rent" is inspired by "La Bohème."
We do not choose the defining tragedies of our time.
I remember, as a child, listening to my mother’s World War II stories and realizing that the war had given her youth a tragic and ennobling sense of importance. We were living through the Vietnam era, and were seeing a rapid succession of horrifying assassinations, and social upheavals. While these events certainly defined us, other powerful tragedies awaited us.
"Rent" has wide appeal. At Shea’s, a large number of audience members, many too young to remember the terror of AIDS, much less the original production of "Rent," greeted familiar moments, and the entrances of iconic characters with the applause of anticipation.
I am sometimes wary of non-Equity tours, but in this case, the talent is indisputable, and the youthful commitment of the cast affords us entirely un-jaded performances of material that they imbue with meaning and importance.
The cast is uniformly strong. Joshua Bess is impressive as Roger, the HIV-positive musician who has trouble connecting emotionally, and struggles to finish writing a song. His voice is strong and fluid. His stage presence is commanding.
Logan Marks is appealing as Mark Cohen, the filmmaker who narrates the story.
Devinré Adams is marvelous as tech wiz Tom Collins, the character who falls in love with cross-dressing Angel. The role was first played on Broadway by Buffalo’s Jesse Martin. Adams’ second act reprise of “I’ll Cover You” packs an emotional wallop.
Deri’ Andrea Tucker is moving as Mimi. Lyndie Moe is terrific as performance artist, Maureen. Javon King is adorable as Angel. Marcus John is playfully sexy as conflicted Benny, and Lencia Kebede is very appealing as feisty Joanne Jefferson.
Seeing "Rent" again and its story of America in the late 1980s gave me the sensation of tragic nostalgia. I have seen three AIDS vintage revivals this month: "Angels in America Part I" at Second Generation Theatre; the national touring production of "Falsettos" in San Francisco; and "Rent." It is fascinating that so many plays with this setting should return simultaneously.
"Rent" was the "Hamilton" of its time, attracting very young audiences who recognized themselves in its themes. (If not for "Rent," there would be no "Hamilton." Its influence is that strong). I can recall being at Q bar on Allen Street at a time when the college generation was mesmerized by "Rent." Many a night, the place would be packed with young people who sang “Seasons of Love,” the anthem that opens Act II, with full-throttled passion while the late Michael Hake played the keyboard. The whole bar sang, like in a movie.
Every person who goes to the theater has a different experience from every other person in the audience. Our individual life experiences color our reactions. This musical, originally experienced as nearly contemporary, must now be viewed through the lens of historical distance. The phone calls from parents, which I found ridiculously comical when I saw the original production, resonate much differently for me, now that my parents have died. (I still have a message from my father in my voice mail). Most parents of the young adults of that era are now gone. Many younger people I recall from that time are also gone.
Indeed, the generation that lived through the AIDS terror has acquired the wisdom of distance. By revisiting "Rent," younger audiences can look into our eyes and they’ll see what we know. "Rent" serves as a powerful reminder.
4 stars (out of 4)
On stage through March 31 in Shea's Buffalo Theatre. For tickets, visit sheas.org.