Rent: 25 Years of Love
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, April 22, 2022
How many minutes are there in 25 years? 13,140,000, apparently, according to the 25th Anniversary “Farewell Season of Love” touring production of Rent, playing in a one-weekend special engagement at Broadway San Diego’s Civic Theater from April 22-24, 2022.
This Jonathan Larson musical, loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème, follows a group of 7 friends as they try to find a space in a world that grows colder and dimmer by the day in the long shadow of HIV and AIDS. While the world is certainly a different place than it was in 1996, there are some themes that spring eternal, and in the first few chords of this production, it was immediately apparent that this Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning show continues, two decades later, to live on as the anthem of a generation. From the immediate enthusiastic applause that accompanied the initial guitar rifts to end-of-production standing ovation, sitting in the audience was a galvanizing experience of community coming out of a long COVID drought.
Rock musical Rent follows roommates and impoverished artists Mark Cohen and Roger Davis and their cast of friends: Tom Collins, Angel Shunard, Mimi Marquez, Maureen Johnson, and Joanne Jefferson, and former friend and roommate Benjamin Coffin III as they navigate the frictions between art and progress in New York’s East Village.
In this touring production, Mark Cohen was performed competently by J.T. Wood, whose clear voice carried well in the venue. Wood did an excellent job leaning into comedic fourth-wall breaking moments afforded this character. Of particular note were his interactions with Joanne Jefferson (Rayla Garske), with whom he shared the duet “Tango Maureen,” an ode to the trials and tribulations that go hand in hand with dating the unpredictable and vivacious Maureen Johnson (Lyndie Moe). Garske’s warm, rich voice finds excellent purchase in each of her songs and she skillfully tackles the frenetic moments of balance between her different responsibilities as attorney, daughter, and production manager for a demanding artist/girlfriend.
Coleman Cummings was outstanding as Roger Davis, a guitarist and songwriter suffering from a broken heart and concurrent HIV diagnosis. While his microphone volume was slightly low throughout the production, and therefore difficult to hear at times, Cummings’ treatment of Roger was impeccable: he was alternately tortured and tender, vulnerable and angry, with a clear, resonant tenor voice.
Other stand-outs include the very athletic Aiyana Smash (Mimi Marquez) and Javon King (Angel Shunard) and their brilliant dance work in heels and tights. They had the audience whooping and hollering in “Today 4 U” and “Out Tonight.” Smash was also flawless vocally in both her rock runs and in her ballads. Shafiq Hicks was a surprising casting choice in Act 1 with his unassuming and lovable Tom Collins (different from the cool confidence of Jesse L. Martin’s original Broadway approach to the role), but his heartbreak was palpable, raw, and real in Act 2 and there were moments in “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” that are worth the price of admission: a glance at Angel’s space, a perfect moment of resonance in the theater, and a vocal riff by Hicks that had the audience roaring.
This production was a very kinetic one, with director Evan Ensign (credits including 11 other productions of Rent) establishing clear presence in actor blocking and pathways, while offering a great deal of bandwidth to Tony-nominated and Drama League Award-winning choreographer Marlies Yearby’s creative work. While oftentimes Yearby’s dance elements worked well, such as the highly choreographed table work at the top of “La Vie Boheme” and the bed-ography in “Without You,” other times they felt more disjointed, such as the contemporary dance work during “Santa Fe.” That said, the use of actors on stage to create sight lines and to draw attention, and the creative use of lighting, shadows, and textures made for a show that was consistently enjoyable throughout and excellently executed.
Rent returns for two final performances each on Saturday April 23 and Sunday April 24. Audiences in San Diego would be well served to catch this final run. Tickets: https://www.broadwaysd.com/upcoming-events/rent/.