by Laurie Peckins
With great anticipation, I entered the Bass Concert Hall at the University of Texas in Austin for the performance of RENT, The 20th Anniversary Tour. The five story, 3000 seat auditorium, sets, and the band were completely 21st- century.
The story takes place in Tompkins Park in the East Village around 1989. The first production of Rent was in The New York Theatre Workshop in 1993. ‘Over the Moon’ by Maureen was set in the Horseshoe Bar, and the infamous full-moon shot at the end of ‘La Vie Boheme’ took place in the Life Cafe. The local music scene was exploding with Grunge, Punk, New Wave, and Rap. The story includes gay relationships (which wasn’t as well accepted then as today), a planned rally to protest the gentrification of the neighborhood and the dismantling of the tent cities throughout the 10 acre park. The culture of the late 80’s and early 90’s were energized to fight against AIDS which was ever-present in the news with hope for new and promising treatments. Many many friends and family were lost to the disease with little human care at that time. There was great misinformed fear of catching the disease which added to the isolation and heartbreak of the time.
What is most relevant about the timing of this revival tour is the unfortunate increase in the homeless population today. The cost of living, rent and real estate in the U.S. continues to climb and today it’s far too easy to lose your home. As a result of the gentrification of inner city neighborhoods, the lack of affordable medical care, education, and equal opportunity and housing, things are tough for lower and middle class. This is an opportunity to energize a new generation to continue the awareness of inequality and to advocate for social justice. I’m proud to be living in Austin where private citizens and local businesses create organizations such as Mobile Loaves and Tiny Houses to balance the lack of federal funding to accommodate dislocated residents.
As the music begins, the company enters the stage with ‘Tune Up/Voice Mail #1’ which is a fun nostalgic theme of the show since we no longer use home lines and answering machines, but live on our tiny computers (cell phones). The story and music are based on the premise of eviction, homelessness, and gentrification of this up and coming East Village neighborhood in Tompkins Park, Manhattan and are powerfully introduced to the audience. Tom Collins is mugged entering the rental space, meets Angel in the second scene, and the story begins.
The entrance of Aaron Alcaraz as Angel, and the depth and range of Aaron Harrington’s voice as Tom Collins were notable. The opening duet between Mimi and Roger “Light My Candle” introduce the characters personal loss. Mark and Joanne sing the duet “Tango Maureen” and complain about their break ups with Maureen. “Out Tonight” is Mimi’s provocative solo at the local club. The duet “I’ll,Cover You” represents the commitment between Angel and Collins as they cope with the complications of AIDS and later Angels death. The Homeless Christmas Chorus is poignant throughout the musical. ‘Over the Moon’ with the zany solo by Maureen and La Vie Boheme by the company end the first act as the rally to save the neighborhood approaches.
525,600 minutes opens the Second Act with a powerful improvised solo by Alana Cauthen in the role of the homeless bag lady. Maureen and Joanne sing the duet “Take Me or Leave Me” to reaffirm their relationship. The duet “Without You” reveals the continuing struggle between Mimi and Roger. The reprise of “I’ll Cover You” foreshadows the upcoming passing of Angel. The company sings “Goodbye Love” which segues into a quintet between the Pastor, Mark, Collins, Benny, and Roger “What You Own”. In the final love song “Your Eyes,” Roger confesses his love for Mimi, as she awakes as if from a bad dream to sing “It’s Only Us/Will I” with the company in the Grand Finale of “No day but today!”
The show received its world premiere off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop on February 13, 1996 to ecstatic reviews and transferred to Broadway on April 29, 1996. RENT is the winner of the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is one of only six musicals to win both awards. Based on the original direction by Michael Greif, Evan Ensign re-stages this 20th anniversary tour. Marlies Yearby serves as choreographer.
This revival of RENT is a personal story by John Larson mixed with desperation and a vision of hope. His sudden death before the opening night on Broadway in 1996 was a tragedy. The success of RENT is an honor to his innovation, and a tribute to modern theatre. For more info on the tour visit RentOnTour.