I was first introduced to this powerful musical as a theater kid in high school. Back then, it was a real accomplishment if you could learn all the words to "La Vie Boehme" and sing it at a moment’s notice.
So when I learned that the 20th anniversary tour of "Rent," a show that had such an impact on me in my formative years, was coming to Milwaukee for a week-long engagement at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, I knew that seeing it would be a personal priority. My second response was instantly feeling really old, knowing that this musical is already 20 years old, but that’s another story.
The late, great Jonathan Larson's masterpiece hurls the 1896 classic opera "La Boheme" into the 20th century. Mark, a passionate filmmaker dedicated to intimately capturing the pivotal life moments of his closest friends, sets the stage. He introduces us to the cast of characters that we will come to know in the coming hours, characters that are collectively struggling with poverty, health concerns and various social hardships.
There’s Roger, the brooding musician struggling to compose his last song before his inevitable demise to AIDS. Then we have Collins and Angel, a soulful teacher and an energetic drag queen, both determined to have an optimistic outlook despite life’s challenges. There’s also Mimi, a vivacious exotic dancer who catches Roger’s eye; Maureen, a passionate activist and Mark’s fiery ex; and Joanne, a spirited lawyer and Maureen’s current girlfriend. Finally, there’s Benny, former friend of the group and current unforgiving landlord. While the entirety of the first act focuses on one day "in the life of friends" (Christmas Eve), the remainder of the show provides glimpses of their lives in the subsequent months.
While the narrative centers on a diverse group of friends, struggling with the complexities of AIDS, relationships and homosexuality in 1980s New York, you could easily plop these same dilemmas into modern times. In fact, there are moments where the parallels between now and 20 years ago are staggering. Thankfully, this touring production successfully honors the themes that initially made it effective, while finding impactful moments to maintain its relevance in 2017.
As a proud "Renthead," I am fortunate to have seen this show performed on stages across the world. But I don’t care if you are watching veteran Broadway musicians in Times Square or talented amateurs in a local community theater production: Without question, "Rent" is a show that lives and dies on natural, unforced chemistry. The heart and soul of any production of "Rent" is the complex and ever-changing relationships of the characters onstage. If you don’t buy into their shared connection, or if you aren’t invested in their fate, I guarantee you won’t be moved by their triumphs and plights.
While this 20th anniversary production impeccably presents the still poignant score and features several strong voices, the actors' chemistry across the board, while solid, is just short of greatness, depriving the audience a completely immersive and emotional theater experience.
While there’s no denying that Mark, interpreted by Sammy Ferber, has a beautiful voice, his portrayal feels lackluster and is just shy of being charming. The same lack of character development can also be said for Kaleb Wells, as Roger. Is he a powerful vocalist? Absolutely. Can he nail a high note with ease? Definitely. His performance of "One Song Glory" towards the beginning of act one was certainly one of the highlights of the evening, after all. But being a good singer in "Rent" is only half of the equation; who that character is and what they are feeling when they are not singing cannot be ignored, especially in this musical.
This is what the majority of performers failed to bring across onstage Tuesday evening. No one in the cast was incapable of performing their parts (although it did seem that Jasmine Easler’s Joanne and Marcus John’s Benny were slightly overwhelmed by the material). In fact, I don’t think there was a bad voice within the group. It just felt, simply put, that some magical spark was missing from this potentially life-changing play.
Despite this lack of natural chemistry in the majority of the show’s solo numbers, there was a greater sense of confidence during its duets and group performances. Ferber and Wells’s rendition of "What You Own," a song expressing their shared frustrations with a materialistic society, was especially stirring (I admit they sang it slightly better than my sister and I did during our teenage years – although I did make a pretty good Roger). The ensemble’s rendition of "I’ll Cover You (Reprise)," led by the wonderful Aaron Harrington, was easily the best song of the evening.
If this review seems "all over the place," that’s because that’s exactly where my mind is with this interpretation of "Rent." One side of me knows I saw a solid production filled with strong vocals and capable performances. But the other side of me understands how this show can have the power to absolutely transform you, and in that regard, I find this cast slightly lacking. But admitting that doesn’t change the fact that I, and countless people around the world, still love this musical and will continue to go see it.
The sign of an impactful and timeless piece of art is that no matter who you are, there are universal themes and beliefs that transcend time, place, or even political and religious affiliation. And with "Rent," everyone can support the musical’s message of acceptance, compassion and, above all, love. In a volatile time like ours, watching this "year in the life of friends" can teach us profound lessons that stay with us long after we leave the theater – even if it comes up short.
"Rent" plays now through Sunday at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Visit their online box office or call 414-273- 7206 for ticket information.