Rent: a super-appealing show about AIDS, addiction and underemployment. Go!

At the Orpheum, though June 11

The Rent ensemble. Photo by Carol Rosegg

There’s a love fest happening this week in downtown Minneapolis where the Tony and Pulitzer prize winning musical, Rent, is playing. Most of the people in the Orpheum theatre on opening night knew all the words to the songs, and applauded entrances almost before they occurred. At one point a person next to me gave the punchline to a joke, “Joanne,” in a hushed and reverential tone, before the actor on stage had a chance to say it.

It’s easy to see Rent’s appeal. The dilemmas the play’s characters face remain stubbornly with us: LGBTQ-phobia, drug addiction, AIDS and HIV, chronic underemployment, and difficulty in finding a meaningful way to make a living and be true to oneself. When Rent opened in 1996 it became one of Broadway’s longest running musicals. The show is now taking a victory lap of sorts around the country to celebrate its twenty-year anniversary. Spiked with a seize the day attitude, it urges people to live every minute to its fullest. The play’s most memorable song, Seasons of Love, encapsulates this ideal with a gentle lyric and easy melody. That the song sounds a great deal like a spin-off from the theme song to Cheers only adds to its appeal.

Loosely based on the libretto of Puccini’s opera La Boheme, Rent is about a group of young artists and street people in NY city in the 1990’s. The AIDS epidemic, performance art, and cocaine addiction figure in the updated story and replace the tuberculosis, painting and prostitution of the opera. Four penniless roommates Roger, Mark, Maureen, and Collins squat in a building now owned by a former roommate, Benny. Roger, (Kaleb Wells) as the angry guitar playing, AIDS sufferer is perhaps the most realistic character. He is allowed a chance to be plausibly angry, needy and tender and has more depth than many characters. But it is Aaron Harrington, as Collins, who almost steals the show in this production. He’s a big bear of an actor. With quiet empathy his Collins falls in love with and cares for the dying, cross-dressing, and flamingly flamboyant Angel. Skyler Volpe as Mimi and Katie Lamark as Maureen also deserve credit for keeping their energy at a crest.

Rent, for all its admirers, is not a perfect musical. Its ending is rough, the dialogue seems forced at times and some of the lyrics could use a more experienced touch, but the play’s scruffy qualities lend something to its appeal. Like its predecessor Hair, its less polished attributes are core to its message. That the touring company’s cast is composed of largely inexperienced actors without Broadway credits in their bios adds reality to this production.

Talented Jonathan Larson wrote the book, the music, and the lyrics for Rent, an almost unheard of feat for a Broadway show. He died of undiagnosed heart disease at the age 35 just as Rent opened in off-Broadway previews. This makes the musical even more poignant. An audience can’t help but wonder what other works this young man might have produced given more time. Carpe diem: seize the day.

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