by MIKE CHAIKEN
Although I am not a “Renthead,” one of the loyal followers of Jonathan Larson’s stage musical, I have seen “Rent” several times thanks to friends were passionate about show set in the 1990s.
I saw the show on Broadway and in its initial touring production during its heyday in the early 2000s when the 1990s was still visible in the rearview mirror.
Having lived through “Rent” and having been a responsible adult 1990s ‑untouched by the current youthful ardor for the days of the first Bush and the first Clinton ‑ I was a bit skeptical about the 20th anniversary tour of the show that stopped in at The Bushnell until March 17.
The world of “Rent” was obliterated by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his adherence to the crime fighting theory of “Broken Windows” (get rid of the petty crimes and the big ones will follow suit).
The New York of “Rent” is full of homeless people, crime, and blight.
Now New York is full of luxury and high rents or expensive condos.
If there are homeless, they are scattered and few.
The starving artists, like the ones in “Rent,” have been forced to move somewhere else.
The AIDS scourge of the 1990s also has been shoved out of the public eye as people who are HIV positive are on meds that give them a relatively normal life.
“Rent” so easily could have become as outdated as the analogue cellphones scattered throughout the story.
But the producers of the tour have managed to find the secret weapon of “Rent” that often gets lost in the trappings of its time period.
The show, at its heart, is about emotion, love, relationships, and friendships.
The cast shines in its ability to convey the desire for these base ingredients of humanity.
AIDS, drug addiction, and poverty aren’t treated as political problems to be solved. Instead they are portrayed as some of the barriers to making a connection.
Roger, played superbly by Joshua Bess, is reluctant to love because of his HIV status and the tragic failure of his last love. Mimi (Deri’Andra Tucker) is bold with her love, but her addictions and HIV status make it difficult for others to see past those conditions. Angel, played superbly by Javon King, and Tom Collins (Devinre Adams) embrace their love, but their mutual HIV status and homosexuality put up barriers to everlasting love. Maureen (Lyndie Moe) and Joanne (Lencia Kebede) are less burdened by their homosexuality. Instead, their barrier is the continuing jockeying for position to be in control of the relationship. And Mark Cohen (played by Logan Marks) builds a barrier around himself, trying to avoid the same mistakes of his friends.
All the cast members make us believe the relationships. And we keep hoping that everything will work out in the end.
“Rent” is also about music. Again, all of the cast members are superb vocalists. The choral members are especially stunning (“Seasons of Love” still provides chills).
Fans of “Rent” always have been drawn to the character of Angel. He’s a misfit who is unafraid to be himself/ herself. He also turns out to be the glue that holds these modern day Bohemians together. King doesn’t disappoint fans, providing a high energy and charismatic performance. One of the highlights of the show, for me, is Angel’s duet with Collins on “I’ll Cover You.”
The duet between Mimi (Tucker) and Roger (Bess) on “Light My Candle” also was a favorite as the pair perfectly portrayed that spark of sexual tension and attraction that arise when a couple first meets.
For long-time fans of “Rent,” I’m sure that there may be little nitpicking details to complain about. But the standing ovation at the end of the night on March 12 indicated that if there were issues with touring production, most people had not noticed them or chose to overlook them.
For newcomers to “Rent,” this production was an excellent testament to Jonathan Larson’s original vision for the show.
I give “Rent” at The Bushnell in Hartford on March 12, four out of four stars.
“Rent” continues at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, until March 17. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday night at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Matinees are Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m.
For tickets, visit www.Bushnell.org