Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning musical RENT comes to life in a Porchlight production that captures the ethos of the original Broadway production. It also the fresh energy of the musical’s message about love, acceptance, and living in the moment.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, RENT’s messages about holding onto loved ones and the theme of “No Day But Today” ring especially true. Stylistically, director Adrian Abel Acevedo’s production clearly draws inspiration from the original Broadway staging across casting and production design. The actors in Porchlight’s production provide youthful, vibrant energy, and some interesting vocal choices that are unique to this particular staging.
RENT was one of the first musicals that made me fall in love with musical theater; I became an instant fan after watching director Christopher Columbus’s 2005 film, which featured many of the original Broadway cast members including such icons as Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, and more. To watch Porchlight’s production was a simultaneous exercise in nostalgia and seeing different moments and songs of the show hit in a different light at this stage of my life. Larson has an uncanny ability to infuse raw emotion into his music and lyrics, and Porchlight’s ensemble beautifully captures the show’s emotional highs and lows. While not every moment of RENT holds up from a dramaturgical perspective (though dramaturg Deborah Blumenthal here clearly guided elements of the storytelling), the emotions in the musical hold up here. RENT has an immense capacity to move audiences, and Porchlight honors that.
To borrow some of Larson’s most iconic lyrics from “Season of Love,” RENT focuses on “a year in the life of friends” in early 1990s New York City. It’s about a community of artist friends struggling to make their way as young adults, honor their art, honor their sexual and gender identities, and contend with the AIDS crisis. Through these intertwined friendships, romantic relationships, and themes, RENT cemented itself as a revolutionary musical of its time—following in the footsteps of HAIR and paving the way for more recent musicals like HAMILTON.
Audiences familiar with RENT will clearly see parallels between Porchlight’s cast and the original Broadway company. The ensemble numbers are especially breathtaking; all of the voices come together in terrific harmony. A particular highlight is Act Two opener “Seasons of Love.” Not only is it generally a treat to hear one of the musical’s most iconic songs live, but ensemble member Bridget Adams-King brings down the house as the “Seasons of Love” soloist. Her powerhouse moment is also augmented with vocal support from Teressa LaGamba, who plays Joanne, and has an out-of-this-world belt.
RENT is almost entirely sung-through so having compelling and skilled singers is a necessity. Luckily, Porchlight’s ensemble mainly has the talent needed to make this show sing. David Moreland gamely takes on the narrator role of Mark, a documentary filmmaker who also serves as the surrogate between the audience and the characters onstage. Moreland nicely nails Mark’s pop rock vocals; his voice has power, but he also delivers his songs with a gentle touch reflective of the character’s documentarian role.
As Mark’s roommate and best friend Roger, Shraga D. Wasserman captures the rockstar angst of the aspiring guitarist and songwriter. Wasserman sounds quite a bit like his original Broadway counterpart Adam Pascal, who perhaps has one of the most distinct voices from the RENT OBC. Wasserman has a magical ability to supply so much power in their high notes and also makes an interesting choice to speak-sing other vocal moments. The variation between Wasserman’s belt and speak-singing creates an interesting dynamic for Roger that I haven’t seen before, and I applaud the choice. Wasserman’s vocals also pair well with Alix Rhode, who plays Roger’s romantic interest Mimi. Wasserman and Rhode’s voices blend together beautifully, especially on “I Should Tell You.” Rhode has a pure and beautiful tone to her voice; in some moments, the sound mixing overpowered some of her vocals. That aside, her singing voice is one of the loveliest I’ve heard in the role of Mimi; her tone lends an ethereal nature to the part. Abraham Shaw nails Benny’s superior nature as the friend who decides to grow up, marry, and take advantage of the benefit of having money; Shaw’s vocal performance isn’t as strong as some of the other leads, but he has an energy that’s both laidback and slightly pretentious—Benny in a nutshell.
Eric Lewis and Josh Pablo Szabo are charming as the iconic RENT couple Tom Collins and drag queen Angel Dumott Schunard. Lewis is a vocal standout in the company, and his ability to emote while singing is unparalleled. Lewis easily breaks hearts with his rendition of “I’ll Cover You B” in Act Two. While Szabo’s vocals are not quite as powerful as some of the other cast members, he portrays Angel’s energy, big heart, and flair with ease. From a dramaturgical perspective, I also appreciated that the characters referred to Angel using the Spanish pronunciation “An-hel” throughout the show; it’s a nice touch that honors the character’s Latine identity.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Lucy Godínez is the best Maureen I’ve seen in a production of RENT—and I’ve seen quite a few productions! I’ve never much cared for Maureen’s protest song “Over the Moon,” but Godínez makes the wacky number an absolute highlight of the show. She infuses the number with so much humor, unique character choices, and her powerful belt. Together with LaGamba as her partner Joanne, the pair are unstoppable. Joanne and Maureen’s powerhouse duet “Take Me or Leave Me” is one of the best moments of this production; I could listen to these two actors compete in their “belt off” all night long.
Scenic designer Ann Davis sets this RENT in a familiar open loft space, but I particularly appreciated that one of the main set pieces is shaped like a video cassette—that detail not only anchors us in the production’s 1991-1992 setting, but also constantly reminds us of Mark’s role as the documentarian of this year in the life. Gregory Graham’s costumes evoke the archetypes of RENT’s characters precisely. Maggie Fullilove-Nugent’s lighting design and Smooch Medina’s projections place nicely together to ground us in the show’s setting. This is not a dance heavy production, and Laura Savage’s choreography can be hit or miss, but there’s some nice moments of movement here. The incorporation of a dedicated tango dancer in “Tango Maureen,” for example, is a wise choice, and Savage’s choreography for Act One closer “La Vie Boheme” doesn’t disappoint at an especially critical moment for movement and energy in the show.
Watching Porchlight’s production reminded me of why RENT has always resonated with me on such an emotional level. I literally both laughed and cried over the course of this production’s two hours and 45 minutes. Whether you’ve been a Renthead for years or you’re looking to experience this musical for the first time, Porchlight’s production honors the spirit of Larson’s story beautifully.
Porchlight Music Theatre’s RENT plays the Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts, 1016 North Dearborn, through December 11, 2022. Visit PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com