Porchlight Reimagines ‘Rent’ in Exciting Ways

There are good Broadway musicals. There are great Broadway musicals. And then there are Broadway musicals that define a generation. “Rent” is such a show.

Jonathan Larson wrote the music, lyrics and book for the rock opera based on a concept by playwright Billy Aronson to turn Puccini’s “La Bohème” into a musical set in the harsh urban jungle of modern New York. Aronson conceived the premise in 1988. Larson and Aronson worked together briefly starting in 1989. Three of their songs would evolve into ones in Larson’s final score.

Beginning in 1991, with Aronson’s blessing, Larson began making “Rent” into his own vision. Larson’s “Rent” embraces the ugliness of homelessness, AIDS and addiction, yet spotlights the beauty of the people battling these challenges. Larson also incorporated additional ideas from dramaturg Lynn Thomson when the musical was being developed and reworked at New York Theatre Workshop.

“Rent” opened off-Broadway in 1996. Tragically, Larson died the night after the final dress rehearsal, never getting to see his work become such an iconic success. The show moved to Broadway in April 1996, and went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score.

“Rent” won numerous other awards as well, and made instant celebrities out of the relatively unheard-of stars: Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Idina Menzel, Fredi Walker and Taye Diggs.

Indeed, “Rent “ fever took over the nation. Multiple touring companies crisscrossed the country bringing Broadway director Michael Greif’s interpretation of Larson’s work to the masses. Companies opened in Canada, England, Australia and a host of other nations.

My own journey with “Rent” began in the mid-1990s, when I was being considered to replace Adam Pascal in the Broadway company. I ultimately had seven callbacks for the role. While I didn’t play Roger on Broadway, the experience gave me a detailed understanding of the show, and I did play the role elsewhere. It remains one of my favorite musicals of all time.

Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre is just the right type of company to go about mounting a totally new vision for Larson’s “Rent.” Comfortably nestled within the 218-seat Ruth Page Center for the Arts, an ensemble of gifted young performers injects the musical with new energy under a reimagining of Larson’s story from highly gifted director Adrian Abel Azevedo.

The musical’s narrator is Mark Cohen, an aspiring filmmaker who wrestles with his commitment to his art versus the allure of money and the sacrifice of principles it would require to acquire it. For this new telling, Azevedo has changed Mark’s medium of choice from film to video. In fact, the entire set from designer Ann Davis is a living, breathing testament to the art of videography.

Azevedo’s generous use of video throughout the musical is ingenious and well-executed. Through projected closeups, the audience is given a gateway into an intimate relationship with each character.

Indeed, Azevedo makes sweeping changes to the established norm for “Rent,” including the insertion of a lot of new dialogue and a more liberal use of the interpretive dance talents of choreographer Laura Savage.

From the start, Azevedo establishes this as Mark’s show. While the other characters are all instrumental to the plot, it is Mark who guides us. It is a cross to bear, of sorts, as, at the end, Mark will be alone – the one to tell the story. This is a theme Azevedo revisits throughout the show.

David Moreland is phenomenal as Mark. I long have considered Anthony Rapp and Neil Patrick Harris my favorite two actors to interpret the role of Mark. I put Moreland’s talents in that same sphere of excellence.

Mark’s roommate Roger is a struggling songwriter and a former heroin addict. Roger’s dangerous lifestyle caught up with him when his girlfriend broke the news about contracting AIDS, later committing suicide. Roger is now in recovery and still bitter and broken.

Traditionally, the role of Roger has been played with a bit of bravado. Shraga D. Wasserman offers a much different interpretation, focusing on giving him the soul of a poet rather than the brashness of a rock ’n’ roll front man. Wasserman plays up the physicality of being a recovering addict, with twitches and unsureness. It is a very effective and original take on the character. I loved it.

Wasserman also has an amazing voice, with a unique way of singing off the beat, a style sometimes used in hip hop. While interesting, it ultimately proves distracting. Wasserman shines when duetting with other performers, where they both must match the rhythm as written to stay in synch.

Roger’s love interest is Mimi Marquez, a 19-year-old exotic dancer. Like Roger, she is living with AIDS and homelessness. Unlike Roger, her drug addiction is still active. Alix Rhode is excellent in the role. She has the looks, voice and sensuality to make hearts flutter.

Roger and Mark’s friend Tom Collins returns to town at the top of the show. Collins is brilliant, but, like his friends, not so focused on the expectations of society. Tragedy turns into a blessing when Collins is attacked by muggers, but then nursed back to health by a beautiful drag queen named Angel. Angel becomes the love of his life, for as long or short as that may be for two people living with AIDS in the early 1990s.

Eric Lewis’ fresh take on Collins is among the best I have ever witnessed, playing him as young and innocent. His dynamic, emotional singing had the audience in tears in the “I’ll Cover You (Reprise).” If Lewis doesn’t get a Jeff Award nomination, I will be shocked.

As originally staged, Angel is a role that requires a strong dancer, an angelic singer and a gentle and loving demeanor with just the right amount of sass. Josh Pablo Szabo is a strong actor, so the personality of the character comes across clear and is very lovable. The directorial decision to change the pronunciation of Angel’s name is complicated in how the name is used several times in the lyrics of songs.

Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen is still a part of their social circle of artists and misfits. She’s a performance artist who has left Mark to start a relationship with an upscale lawyer named Joanne.

Lucy Godínez gives the audience a Maureen like none seen before. Her “Over the Moon” is by far the most creative and entertaining performance of the number I have ever witnessed. Opposite Godínez as Joanne, Teressa LaGamba shows off a great voice and strong acting chops.

Rounding out the family of struggling artists is Benjamin Coffin III. Once living among Mark, Maureen and the rest, Benny left the streets behind by marrying into money. Played well by Abraham Shaw, Benny must walk a thin and winding line – at times villain and, at other times, friend.

An equal key to the success of “Rent” is the ensemble. Porchlight has assembled a top-notch group of performers to fill out the cast. Bridget Adams-King stands out as the soloist in “Season of Love.” Her voice fills you with bliss and leaves you begging for more. The rest of the strong ensemble includes Wesly Anthony Clergé, Naphtali Curry, Leah Davis, Caitlin Dobbins, Nick Johnson, Chris Khoshaba, Nik Kmiecik, Ziare Paul-Emile, TJ Tapp and Brennan Urbi.

The director has pulled some amazing performances out of his actors. If a Broadway revival were being planned, Moreland and Lewis would be names for the casting director to give serious consideration to.

Music director and conductor Michael McBride leads a strong band of musicians. Larson’s songs for “Rent” embrace a number of different styles of music, and the band handles them all well.

Costume designer Gregory Graham deserves huge recognition for achieving the look of “Rent” without imitating the original production’s costumes. I loved Graham’s choices – very unique but respectful to tradition at the same time.

The entire cast, crew and artistic staff at Porchlight Theatre deserve a standing ovation for their talents shaping a fresh look at a modern classic. “Rent” is a powerful show as written, and the broad brushstrokes Azevedo uses in painting his vivid new picture of Larson’s world are to be commended.

Originally published by Northwest Herald, Shaw Media

Peace. Love. Trust.

Rikki Lee Travolta

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