When “Rent” debuted in 1996, the rock opera grabbed the national imagination and hung on with vengeance. It won a Tony. It won a Pulitzer. In a crushing case study on irony, its creator passed away the night before the show opened. The New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley wrote that the show’s “spirited score and lyrics” defied death. And today — 20 years after “Rent” began its first national tour — the show’s anniversary revival tests whether “Rent” itself can defy death, too.
At the Boch Center’s Shubert Theater, where the musical will play through Nov. 10, “Rent” begins its latest bid for relevance on a stage strewn with debris. Milk cartons sit at exacting angles. The cast wear skinny jeans and beanies. The show’s protagonist steps out on stage amid candles glowing from a prop fire escape. And then, against its backdrop of forced nonchalance, “Rent” retells the story it’s been championing for 20 years: one of self-identified bohemians who, via the power of friendship, fight rising living costs, AIDS, and the Man.
The resulting musical is by turns silly, incoherent, tragic, radical, and insensitive. It still stars a cast that looks like a real New York City street might; it also uses “queer” only as a slur and features an entire song about consumerism in the 1990s. “Rent” has aged in complicated ways since its debut. If the current iteration captures anything of the original, however, it is the original’s offbeat optimism.
The credit for the show’s buoyancy belongs largely to the cast, most of whom are making their national debuts with “Rent” and all of whom embrace their roles with easy energy. Maureen Johnson (Kelsee Sweigard) and Joanne Jefferson (Samantha Mbolekwa), partners whose mercurial relationship co-opts the plot, stand out among a deep cast: Sweigard is as charismatic, and Mbolekwa as measured, as each needs to be. Their big-hearted warmth makes “Take Me Or Leave Me,” a sonic power struggle between two outsized personalities, the auditory highlight of the show.
Roger Davis (Coleman Cummings) and Mimi Marquez (Aiyana Smash), HIV-positive recovering addicts in an on-again-off-again relationship, glow more gently. Smash sings in a raspy alto, while Cummings’s voice is almost choral — an effect that softens his character’s toughness while equally eroding the grit typical of ‘90s rock. Both singers excel in the second half of the performance, where characters die aching deaths and songwriter Jonathan Larson makes more overt “Rent”’s meditation on time and running out of it. (“Forget regret or life is yours to miss,” he writes in the second part of the finale.)
The show’s second half also soars for its ability to highlight the supporting cast, who stand out at every opportunity. Several of the supporting cast members are dancers in a way that the show’s leads are not, and their athleticism further energizes the whole production. The cast’s depth also grants empathy to the homeless characters the supporting members often play, humanizing the non-bohemian, systemic poverty that “Rent” has been accused of erasing.
In “Seasons of Love,” the musical’s blockbuster number, the chorus provides a metric for evaluating a lifetime. There are 525,600 minutes in a year, the lyrics go, which can be alternately measured in sunsets, midnights, or cups of coffee. By the song’s metric, it has been roughly 2,102,400 minutes since gay marriage became legalized; 17,870,400 minutes since the AIDS epidemic reached its peak; 10,512,000 minutes since “Rent” debuted. But the show itself isn’t counting. Instead, the modern “Rent”’s depth defends the musical's premise: that situations are temporary, but spirit lasts forever. It is possible to imagine a future world without HIV, rent inflation, or rock operas. With a production as upbeat and generous as the anniversary revival’s, however, it is harder to imagine a world where “Rent”’s 165 minutes are not worth a watch.
—Staff Writer Iris M. Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.