The 20th anniversary touring company of the hit Broadway musical “Rent” brought the house down with an electric performance Thursday night at the Gertrude C. Ford Center. Under direction from musical theater veteran Evan Ensign, who is also currently the resident director for “The Phantom of the Opera” in London, the cast put on what can only be described as a stellar performance.
In 1996, “Rent” debuted in the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway, where it would run for the next 12 years, closing Sept. 7, 2008. Written by Jonathan Larson, “Rent” would go on to be widely praised by critics for years to come. It was nominated for 10 Tony awards in 1996, winning four, including “Best Musical,” “Best Book of a Musical,” “Best Original Score” and “Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical,” which went to Wilson Jermaine Heredia for his portrayal of Angel Dumott Schunard. “Rent” also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in the same year.
Loosely based on “La Bohème,” an 1896 opera by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, “Rent” tells the story of a group of young artists struggling to survive in New York City. Roommates Mark Cohen and Roger Davis, a filmmaker and singer-songwriter, respectively, are visited by their friend Tom Collins, an anarchist college professor, on Christmas Day. Collins brings along a street musician, Angel Dumott Schunard, whom Collins met after being mugged. Meanwhile, Mark and Roger’s former roommate and current landlord, Benjamin Coffin III, is asking for the rent the had previously told them they would not have to pay. Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen Johnson is putting on a performance as a protest to the treatment of the homeless in the city, and Benny tells Mark and Roger he will not make them pay if they can convince Maureen to stop her protest. Benny says he will tear down the building they live in now, build new condos, and let Mark and Roger live there with him for free. This provides the backdrop for a story that is about love, loss, artistry and friendship.
The show was purportedly sold out, but there were empty seats throughout the orchestra level. The audience was full of people of all ages, from college students to the elderly. One of the audience members was adjunct law professor Benjamin Griffith, who was impressed by the performance.
“I saw this about 20 years ago on Broadway. It was about two months into the original run, and it was a knockout,” he said.
While many people in the audience were familiar with the hit musical, not every member of the audience was. Some of the students in the audience had never even seen the musical before.
Ben Watson, a student who had never seen the show, said during intermission, “It’s incredible. The music is fantastic. My favorite character is Maureen. She’s hilarious.”
By the end of the show, there was no doubt left in anyone’s mind regarding the caliber of the show. Sammy Ferber brought the perfect energy to Mark Cohen, and Marcus John played a very convincing bad guy during the first act of “Rent” as Benny.
A part of “Rent” that most critics praised was the way the musical portrayed HIV/AIDS-afflicted characters, Roger Davis, Mimi Marquez, Tom Collins and Angel Schunard. In a review of the original Broadway run, New York Times writer Ben Brantley said the characters had a “transfixing brightness while living in the shadow of AIDS,” rather than being resigned to their fates. This really came across in the performances of Kaleb Wells, Skyler Volpe, Devinre Adams and Aaron Alcaraz.
The “Rent” 20th anniversary touring company will return to Mississippi in March 2018 in Cleveland.