Jonathan Larson’s Rent has arrived at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts in an energetically performed 20th-Anniversary non-Equity tour that recreates Michael Greif’s original 1996 vision, one that revolutionized Broadway with its now iconic tale of impoverished young artists and musicians just barely holding it together in New York’s Lower East Side during the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic.
Taking Puccini’s La Boheme as its starting-off point, Rent brings to vivid life would-be filmmaker Mark (Danny Harris Kornfeld), ever the observer, never the participant; his aspiring songwriter roommate Roger (Kaleb Wells); Mimi (Skyler Volpe), the Cat Scratch Club exotic dancer whom Roger falls for; drag queen Angel (David Merino) and his philosophy prof boyfriend Collins (Aaron Harrington); Maureen (Katie LaMark), Mark’s bisexual performance artist ex-wife; Joanne (Jasmine Easler), Maureen’s lawyer girlfriend; and Benny (Christian Thompson), Mark and Roger’s ex-roommate and current nemesis.
The cast is multiracial and multicultural. Roger and Mimi are HIV positive. Angel and Collins have AIDS. “AZT breaks” punctuate the show at frequent intervals.
Larson’s still-potent songs (“One Song Glory,” “La Vie Boheme,” “Seasons Of Love,” “Take Me Or Leave Me,” etc.) were at Rent’s debut unlike any others previously heard on a Broadway stage, with a pulsating rock beat and gritty lyrics, and the plotlines, revolving around straight, gay, and bisexual characters, many of whom were living with HIV or AIDS, were then as current as today’s headlines.
Those who might be hoping for a re-imagined Rent won’t find it at the Segerstrom, Evan Ensign basing his direction on Grief’s Tony-winning original with Paul Clay’s set (adapted by Matthew E. Maraffi) and Angela Wendt’s costumes identical to those that Broadway audiences saw over Rent’s 5123 performance run.
Still, what this Rent lacks in originality, it makes up for by allowing audience members, many of whom may not even have been born when Rent first took Broadway by storm, to experience precisely how Larson’s rock opera re-energized a genre then stuck in late-‘80s/early‘90s Les Miz/Phantom bombast.
Rent’s fresh-out-of-school 20th-Anniversary Tour cast may not yet have their Equity cards (indeed at least one cast member is still pursuing his college studies), but they bring to their roles what a more seasoned Broadway cast might not—the raw energy and talent of the early 20somethings whose lives they are inhabiting.
Kornfeld’s nerdy-handsome Mark, Wells’ edgy rocker of a Roger, and Volpe’s wholesome-meets-sexy Mimi all make strong impressions. Merino’s sweet/sassy Angel and Harrington’s huggable bear of a Collins have terrific chemistry as do LaMark’s delightfully quirky Maureen and Easler’s powerhouse bruiser of a Joanne, and Thompson is so darned sexy, you can almost excuse Benny’s jerkier moments. (Special mention must be made of LaMark’s loopylicious “Over The Moon” and Harrington’s gut-wrenchingly performed “I’ll Cover You” reprise.)
Supporting ensemble members John Devereaux (Christmas Caroler, Mr. Jefferson, Pastor and others), Paola Hernandez (swinging in as Alexi Darling, Roger’s Mom and others), Alia Hodge (Mrs. Jefferson, Woman with Bags and others), Sammy Ferber (Gordon, The Man, Mr. Grey and others), Natalie Lipin (Mark’s Mom and others), Jordan Long (Steve, Man with Squeegee, a Waiter and others), and Timothy McNeill (Paul and others) are all absolutely terrific, with Hodge scoring bonus points for her soaring vocals in “Seasons Of Love.”
Marlies Yearby’s choreography is the Broadway original, standout sequences including the full-cast title song and “La Vie Boheme” along with “Tango Maureen” and “Take Me Or Leave Me,” both of whom allow Easler’s Joanne to burn up the stage, first with Kornfeld and then with Lamark.
Swings Bryson Bruce, Tim Ehrlich, Michael McClure, and Alexis Louise Young are poised to step in at a moment’s notice.
Technical elements are all Broadway-caliber, including Jonathan Spencer’s electrifying lighting design and Keith Caggiano’s rock-concert-ready sound design, with musical director Samuel Bagalá leading Rent’s sensational five-piece onstage band.
Times may have changed in the years since Rent made its Broadway debut, but even two decades later, Jonathan Larson’s game-changer of a musical remains a crowd-energizing emotion-packed dazzler. Check it out this weekend at the Segerstrom to see just why.
Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
January 6, 2017
Photos: Carole Rosegg