“Rent” was to the 1990s what “Hamilton” became to the early 21st century — a little-ish show that started Off-Broadway, took the theater world by storm and moved to Broadway, where it made show business history.
The show was written by Jonathan Larson, based partly on his own story (and Puccini’s “La Bohème,” with musical references throughout). Larson tragically, died of an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, the night before the Off-Broadway premiere. He never got to know what a sensation his show became, how it had a 12-year run on Broadway and how it won several Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Now it has come to Davis. Steve Isaacson, the producer of Davis Music Theatre Company, proudly shared his two degrees of separation with Larson, who was apparently a friend of Isaacson’s drama teacher.
This production is directed by John Ewing, with musical direction by Kyle Jackson and choreography by Cynthia Krivicich and displays a DMTC phenomenon that I have observed over the years.
In its 34 year history, DMTC has made great strides in productions. The quality of shows has become quite good, some better than others. What I have seen, however, is that when the company produces a “new” show, especially a popular one such as “Rent,” which is rarely performed locally, all the best talent from all over the area show up to audition. Based on how many actors in this show are making their DMTC debut, this is obviously the case for “Rent,” which explains why this is such a uniformly excellent production.
It is the emotional story of young artists and wannabes in Manhattan’s East Village, looking for love, inspiration and a place to live. Critics praised it not only for its acting and musical components but for its representation of HIV-positive individuals.
Mark (Philip Graves) is a documentary filmmaker living with rock musician and recovering drug addict Roger (Jonathan Wertz), who is attracted to S&M club dancer and drug addict Mimi (Aimee Rose Santone). Their first meeting (“Light My Candle”) is right out of “La Bohème.”
Zany drag queen Angel (Ethan Mack), who has AIDS, saves Mark and Roger’s former roommate Tom Collins (Kevin Borcz) from a beating and the two fall in love, a relationship which is the most powerful of the show, showing the couple as being happy, with positive outlooks on life, rather than being resigned to their inevitable deaths. Following Angel’s death, Collins’ moving “I’ll Cover You” is the production’s most powerful moment.
That most of the characters have AIDS is subtly revealed at a dinner scene, where someone’s alarm goes off and most of the characters take out pill bottles. Today, when AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence, the underlying story of “Rent” is a bit dated, but no less emotional.
Maureen (Cassie Mosher) is Mark’s former girlfriend and current girlfriend of lawyer Joanne (Chantel Aldana).
Benjamin “Benny” Coffin (Kyle Hadley) is an ex-roommate to Mark and Roger and now the landlord of the building in which they live. He has overlooked their rent for a year and is now demanding it or threatening to lock them out of the building.
The story follows the group from one Christmas Eve to another (the beautiful “Seasons of Love” opens the second act and is a highlight of the evening, a poignant acknowledgment of the passage of time and evolution of emotion).
The message of “Rent” is to live for the moment, soak up as much of “life” as you can because you never know how much longer you have to live. Instead of being an overriding sad situation, it is a salute to the love of the characters for life and for each other.