I first saw “Rent” in 1998 during its run on the West End in London. It was the first time I’d seen a musical that wasn’t staged in a high school auditorium, and it was a revelatory experience. Still a global phenomenon at the time, “Rent” was raucous and heartbreaking and oh, so young. Even though I was a few years older than the characters portrayed on the stage, it spoke to me.
Two decades later, I’m sporting a lot more gray, and the ’90s music I listened to is now classic rock. “Rent,” meanwhile, still feels raucous and heartbreaking and yes, oh so young, even with its utterly ’90s references to the AIDS drug AZT, former president of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel and Pee-Wee Herman. The 20th anniversary tour of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning rock opera adaptation of “La Boheme” brings a youthful energy to the INB Performing Arts Center.
It’s a story about young people looking for their voices and finding their way. They struggle with AIDS and addiction (and sometimes both), and more mundane issues like paying the rent. Along the way, they make art (or at least attempt to), make love and make family.
Set in the mid-’90s in the gritty New York City neighborhood called Alphabet City, the story centers on a young filmmaker, Mark, and his musician roommate, Roger, who live in an industrial loft owned by their former roommate, the suddenly bourgeois Benny.
Mark is single, having been dumped by his performance artist girlfriend Maureen, who left him for a woman named Joanne.
Roger, meanwhile, is a recovering addict fresh back from rehab and trying to get his music mojo back. Benny just wants his rent.
Their friend Tom Collins is a gay anarchist college instructor who, after getting mugged, meets Angel, a drag queen. Into Roger’s life comes their neighbor Mimi, a dancer with a serious drug habit.
As the cast couples up, Mark is the odd man out, a normal state of affairs for a person who lives his life behind the lens of a movie camera. He’s an observer on stage, and at key points in the show he can be seen standing off to the side, watching his friends fall in love, break up and sometimes make up.
The show is completely sung-through, and the music is performed by a rock band set up on stage, not in the orchestra pit. There’s a reason the original Broadway cast recording of “Rent” is one of the best-selling Broadway albums of all time: The music is just that good. From the beloved Act II opener “Seasons of Love” and the love ballad “Light My Candle” to the upbeat numbers “La Vie Boheme” and “Out Tonight,” “Rent” is a musical thrill ride.
The non-Equity tour now in Spokane features some talented young performers. Aaron Alcaraz is glorious as Angel, with a strong vocal performance in “Today 4 U,” and a beautiful duet with Devinre Adams’ Tom Collins in “I’ll Cover You.” Their chemistry is quite lovely.
Thursday night, understudy Jordan Dunn-Pilz stepped into the role of Mark, and charmed the audience with “Halloween” and his amusing duet with Joanne (Jasmine Easler), “Tango Maureen,” in which they compare notes on the flirtatious artist. Speaking of Maureen, Lyndie Moe was completely bonkers in Maureen’s performance art/protest number “Over the Moon” near the end of Act I. It’s weird and off point and laughably bad, revealing that Maureen has better intentions than she has talent. Moe gives it her all.
As for the musical’s central love story, between Roger and Mimi, it’s lovingly played by Kaleb Wells and Skyler Volpe. Volpe really nails “Out Tonight” while Wells delivers a beautiful rendition of “Your Eyes.” Together, they make “Light My Candle” shimmer.
And that iconic moment? When the cast lines up on stage and sings “Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes / Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear,” from “Seasons of Love”? Yeah, it still gives chills. As a whole, this cast sounds good together, and the group songs like “Seasons,” “Rent,” “La Vie Boheme” and “Another Day” really shine.
The biggest challenge in revisiting something beloved from the past is that the return trip often fails to meet expectations. Looking at “Rent” again is not without its downsides. The outcome for Mimi feels more like a cheat than I thought before, and some of the sex stuff that felt so thrillingly risque back then seems cliched, even juvenile, now. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing “Rent” again. The cast of this 20th anniversary tour serves the show well, and made me happy for a few hours of time travel.
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