Photo by Liz Lauren
I’ve seen Rent more than half a dozen times…not even including the times I’ve watched the film…so I was really looking forward to “this year’s Rent,” i.e. the new production at Porchlight Music Theatre. And Adrian Abel Azevedo’s clever staging didn’t let me down a bit: this production of Jonathan Larson’s brilliant homage to New York’s East Village, friendship, hope, and love within the devastation of the AIDS crisis, and Puccini’s La Boheme doesn’t really reinvent the musical, but it makes both the ups and downs of the story somehow even more personal than I’ve seen it in the past. It is simultaneously grimy, gritty, and glorious, which I’m sure Larson would take as a huge compliment.
Ann Davis’ scenic design contains many original elements, most notably a giant VHS cassette performing triple duty as a screen for projections, an entryway to points farther upstage, and a visual reminder of the technology that Mark (David Moreland) has to work with as a film artist, as well as a huge downstage pull-on screen. Azevedo starts the show by letting us see the opening as Mark sees it through his camera, and most scenes allow this conceit to run through the show. (On opening night, there was a bit of trouble with this screen, once when part of it collapsed onto a performer and once, in the end, when it got stuck on its track, but it’s a neat idea.) On the whole, Davis’s design allows Azevedo all kinds of flexibility in his staging, and he takes full advantage. In “Tango: Maureen,” for instance, Mark doesn’t dance with Joanne (Teressa Lagamba) for the full song; instead, he continues working on getting a mic patch to work as dancers appear on the upstage platform.
Moreland gives a thoughtful and dynamic performance as Mark, who believes he will be “the one of us to survive” the epidemic. (“Poor baby!” his best friend Roger, who has AIDS, retorts.) He is the observer and narrator of all of this as he makes a movie of “a year in the life of friends.” Like many of them, he is a struggling artist, one of the lucky, healthy ones. Roger (Shraga D. Wasserman), Collins (Eric Lewis), Angel (Josh Pablo Szabo), and Mimi (Alix Rhode), among others, are being kept healthy and alive through the inconsistent measure of doses of AZT, a 1990s drug that kept the disease at bay…for a while. But while the latter three keep striving to live and even find love, Roger—apparently broken by his diagnosis—spends his days inside his freezing loft apartment desperately trying (and failing) to “write one last song before I—.”
His moroseness keeps pulling him away from a potential relationship with the playful and provocative Mimi. Wasserman and Rhode have a strange kind of chemistry here: they work as a couple, but only for the limited moments when Roger forgets his lot in life, leaving him to mope—Wasserman is a brilliant moper—while Mimi tries to figure him out as Rhodes gets to try on various shades of “WTF” while still portraying a vivacious, sensual character.
Meanwhile, gifted computer teacher Collins meets the exuberant crossdresser Angel and both allow themselves to fall instantly in love. (See, Roger? That’s how it’s done!) Szabo is a wonderful Angel (or Ahn-hel, as they introduce themself with the Spanish pronunciation, which we could quibble about since the rest of the character’s name is the very French-sounding Dumotte Schunard, but let’s not). Szabo’s Angel single-handedly brings light and warmth to the cold and dark loft. Their version of “Today 4 U” is a joy (and brilliantly choreographed by Laura Savage, whose work is outstanding throughout). It’s very easy to see why Collins loves them so deeply so quickly. (I know that the “they” pronoun wasn’t used in 1991, but I think it is the most appropriate one for Angel, who is referred to once as a drag queen but probably only because the term “enby” did not yet exist.)
Lucy Godinez and Lagamba make a perfect (or maybe seriously imperfect?) couple as the bisexual performance artist Maureen and her lawyer girlfriend Joanne. Godinez has so much fun with “Over the Moon” that it shouldn’t even be legal—I wonder if anyone in the theatre didn’t “Moo” with her—and the two of them bring the house down with the love/hate song “Take Me or Leave Me.” (Again, Savage’s choreography—extremely sexual, thoroughly angry, and often very funny—is spot on, as it is in the exuberant “La Vie Boheme,” the powerfully dark “Contact,” and all of the rest of the songs.) Elsewhere, Abraham Shaw’s Benny is as believable as one of the former loft roommates as he is the “yuppy scum” he has allowed himself to become. There is never a doubt that he still wants to be part of whatever they have even though he has taken an easy way out for himself.
Azevedo gets extraordinary performances from everyone in the ensemble as well, especially Bridget Adams-King, who plays multiple roles and whose powerful soprano anchors “Seasons of Love,” and Chris Khoshaba as, among other things, a very menacing street drug dealer. And of course the singing and orchestra are wonderful: Jeff-winning Music Director/Conductor Michael McBride wouldn’t settle for anything less. In fact, all aspects of this show are on point, from Maggie Fullilove-Nugent’s lighting design (which includes surprise deep red highlights at one point) to Matthew R. Chase’s sound design with background noises evocative of the streets of New York to Gregory Graham’s understated (except when it comes to Angel) costume design. And special mention needs to be made of Smooch Medina’s projection design, which calls for live video projections from onstage throughout the show.
I’m a huge fan of Rent (one of only a handful of musicals ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize), and this highly original production is going to replay in my mind for a long time. Lewis’s reprise of “I’ll Cover You” at Angel’s memorial is one of the most powerfully sad versions of that song I’ve ever heard. Get your tickets now: you don’t want to miss this year’s Rent.
Tickets for Rent are available from Porchlight Music Theatre and at 773-777-9884. It is playing at the Ruth Page Theatre,1016 N. Dearborn Pkwy through Dec.11. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.