“Rent” is back, and it’s on the money! This time around, its new address is Off-Broadway at the eclectic New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St., where just going down, down, down the earth-hued cement stairs of the cool underground venue is a movingly dramatic experience.
At the entrance of Stage 1, theatergoers are warmly welcomed and ushered into the comfortable, intimate 499-seat theater, which is the absolutely perfect new home for “Rent.” Vibing instantly with this cool space, the musical’s diverse fan base started chatting up the show with their fellow “Rentees.” Their passion was so contagious, one would think they had personally invested in the show. And in a way, judging from snatches of their conversations, you could say that some of them do have a vested interest.
They were the elated and loyal fans who were among the theatergoers at the opening of “Rent” on April 29, 1996, when the show made its debut at the Nederlander Theatre. Many of them were there to celebrate the memory of Jonathan Larson, the genius who wrote the book, music and lyrics of the Tony Award-winning rock musical and died the week the show opened. After an amazing 12-year run-the Pulitzer Prize-winning show closed on Sept. 7, 2008-several of those now sitting at New World Stages were there then.
These A List Rentees knew everything about the show-that Michael Greif directed “Rent,” which is based on Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme;” that the rock musical had distinguished itself as the ninth longest-running show in Broadway history, with a total of 5,124 performances; and that it had grossed $280 million. They also knew that “Rent” has played in the United States and internationally in several national and international stage productions, and they knew about the 2005 film version of “Rent.”
(I got all of this great information from the wonderful people-New Yorkers and out-of-towners-sitting around me, who offered me and my guest, actress/dancer Elasea Douglass, chocolate bonbons and other goodies as they sipped wine and shared their special memories of their beloved “Rent” experiences Love it! Love it! Thank you, beautiful people.)
The current production, also directed by Greif, which opened on Aug. 12, is a brilliant jewel that sparkles like the Christmas lighting that illuminates the East Village setting of “Rent” at the top of the show.
Here, on a cold, winter’s evening we enter the unlit loft of Mark Cohen (Adam Chanler-Berat) and his roommate, Roger Davis (Matt Shingledecker), who are on a rent strike. Mark, an independent filmmaker, is stealing electrical power from outside his apartment so he can videotape his new documentary. Roger, a songwriter/musician who is HIV-positive, is playing his guitar as he tries to write one major song that will put his name out there before he dies of AIDS.
Into their world comes a group of very interesting characters who reflect the rich diversity of New York City’s Lower East Side. Many are artists who believe in and live a bohemian life in which their art is the primary focus. Within this multicultural community varying lifestyles prevail, as in Tom Collins (Nicholas Christopher), a gay philosopher professor and activist with AIDS; Angel Dumott Schunard (MJ Rodriguez), a gay drag queen percussionist with AIDS; and Mimi Marquez (Arianda Fernandez) an S&M dancer with HIV.
Other characters are Maureen Johnson (Annaleigh Ashford), a bisexual performance artist; Joanne Jefferson (Corbin Reid), Maureen’s lesbian girlfriend who is a lawyer; and Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III (Ephraim Sykes), the former roommate of Roger, Mark, Collins and Maureen. Benny, who married for money, is now the landlord of the building where he once lived with Mark and Roger. Although married, he still has the hots for Mimi, who is busy checking out someone else.
Rounding out the cast are Morgan Weed, who plays Mrs. Cohen (Mark’s mother), Coat Vendor and others; Ben Thompson, who plays The Man, a drug dealer, Mr. Grey and others; Marcus Paul James, who plays Mr. Jefferson, Paul and Others; Tamika Sonja Lawrence, who plays Mrs. Jefferson, Homeless Woman and others; Michael Wartella as Waiter; and Margot Bingham as Alexi Darling, Mrs. Davis and others.
The “Rent” company rocks this hot contemporary musical with every number, turning it out again and again on such numbers as “Rent” and “Seasons of Love.” Show-stopping moments belong to Fernandez singing “Out Tonight,” Rodriguez and Christopher rendering the touching “I’ll Cover You,” Fernandez and Shingledecker on “Another Day,” “Without You” and “Light My Candle” (with the company). Ashford’s “Over The Moon” number is one hilarious hoot! She certainly worked it over the moon.
Go see this rendition of “Rent!” It is a brilliantly entertaining and provocatively moving show with heart and balls. Its humanitarian message, focusing on such topics as affordable housing, sexuality and HIV/AIDS, makes “Rent” a timeless classic, and this supreme crop of talented actors are all that and more!
And with the close of the curtain, we are pleased to present the entire cast of “Rent” with a Casting Pearls Award. Bravo! Bravo!
For tickets to “Rent,” call the theater’s box office at (212) 947-8844 or Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 (outside New York: (800) 432-7250).