Theatre Review: ‘Rent’ at Actor’s Express

11692734_10152924329042633_5720840725303678604_nBy Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

Actor’s Express is presenting the Broadway musical “Rent,” with book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, directed by Freddie Ashley, through Aug. 16. Because of high ticket demand, it has already been extended one week.

Before I tell you about the Express’ outstanding production, I must confess a sort of personal involvement in this show. “Rent” opened on Broadway on Monday, April 29, 1996. On Saturday, April 27, I was privileged to see the final preview. The show had opened off-Broadway on Jan. 25; on that date the 35-year-old creator of “Rent,” Jonathan Larson, died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm, a treatable condition if detected in time.

Mr. Larson’s death both traumatized and electrified the cast. The final words in the show are “No day but today.” The show and cast were already unified and clicking, but now life and art merged to galvanize the entire project. The cast jumped over the moon, as a line from “Rent” says.

The performance I witnessed that Saturday night was one of the most thrilling evenings I’ve ever spent in a theatre. Everybody knew the show was a mega-hit. In addition, I had a short conversation afterwards with the show’s original stars: Daphne Ruben-Vega (Mimi), Anthony Rapp (Mark), and Adam Pascal (Roger). This is not the sort of thing a theatre geek (me) ever forgets. If this is name dropping, so be it. There were also movie stars in the audience; New York, you know.

If you’re a Rent-head (a super fan of “Rent”), you will have already stopped reading and are getting your tickets to Actor’s Express’ version. A smart move. But please come back.

What’s “Rent” about? Before he died, Jonathan Larson was constantly asked this question. He finally came up with this succinct reply: “ ‘Rent’ is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century.” It’s set in New York’s East Village. The plot is loosely based on Puccini’s opera “La Bohème.”

“We begin.” Those are the first words of the evening, spoken by Mark (Patrick Schweigert), an aspiring filmmaker, to the audience and his roommate Roger (Jeremiah Parker Hobbs), an aspiring singer-songwriter and HIV positive ex-junkie. They live in a tumble-down East Village loft, and they have an illegal wood burning stove—you get the picture. They have burning ambition, too, and they believe “the opposite of war isn’t peace…it’s creation.” Roger dreams of writing one truly great song (“One Song Glory”) to leave behind before he goes.

But America isn’t very kind to its struggling artists; only successful ones. As Mark is leaving to help his ex-girlfriend Maureen (Jennifer Alice Acker) with a gig, Mimi (Julissa Sabino), a downstairs neighbor, shows up asking Roger to light her candle, as the power has gone out. Mimi and Roger are instantly attracted to each other, with more in common than they know.

Meanwhile former roommate turned mercenary landlord Benny (Michael Stiggers) shows up demanding rent money. An old friend, Tom Collins (Greg Hunter) has been mugged and is helped by Angel (Austin Tijerina), a street musician whose gentle kindness quite overwhelms Tom; it isn’t long before they’re in love.

The saucy Maureen, by the way, left Mark for Joanne (Jeanette Illidge). The East Village has never needed Supreme Court decisions for its denizens to love whomever they choose. By the way, Patrick Schweigert’s Mark is superb, unforced, intelligent, magnetic. The show is extremely well cast.

Everyone convenes later at the Life Café for a celebration of the bohemian life of artists (“La Vie Bohème”). Some of the characters are HIV positive and some are not, but please don’t think the show is a downer. “Rent” exudes a formidable esprit de corps; I’m sure you’ve heard of “Seasons of Love.”

But when a character like Angel (exquisitely played by Austin Tijerina, who has an empathetic life force that reaches out and grabs you) falls ill, it hits hard. I won’t lie.

Or when Mimi seems in danger, Roger and she (Mr. Hobbs and Ms. Sabino) have their most touching moments. Oddly enough, the show’s most moving songs and scenes seem to be the quieter ones, with the exceptions of Mimi’s joyful “Out Tonight”; Maureen and Joanne’s “Take Me or Leave Me”; and the thrilling, anthemic finale. And I love Angel and Tom’s “I’ll Cover You.” I think you can tell I’m a Rent-head. If I had more space, I’d single out more individuals.

You may know that the original production won virtually every award in sight, including a Pulitzer.

Alli Lingenfelter is the music director; Sarah Turner Sechelski choreographs, and Kat Conley is the scenic designer. The musicians are fine: Alli Lingenfelter, Bennett Walton, Dan Bauman, JR Hawkins. Also featured in the cast are Chase Davidson, Shelli Delgado, Eric Hosford, Falashay Pearson, Trevor Rayshay Perry (a standout), Dylan Parker Singletary, Jordan William Snead, and Ashley Tate.

I think you should see “Rent,” even if you’ve seen it before. To borrow again from Roger and Mimi, “There’s only us, there’s only this; forget regret or life is yours to miss.”

For tickets and information, visit actors-express.com.

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