The 20th Anniversary Tour of RENT touched down at the National Theatre this week, much to the delight of area RENTheads. This modern take on Puccini’s La Boheme, with music, lyrics and book by the late Jonathan Larson, proves that it still has it where it counts. While the late 80s/early 90s aesthetic of the show has begun to show signs of age, RENT still offers the kind of frenetic, visceral thrills that it always has.
Directed by Evan Ensign, this RENT avoids many of the pitfalls that have plagued tours of the musical over the past two decades. Stunt casting and attempts to modernize the work have frequently challenged various incarnations of the musical whose ethics, expression and aesthetics are necessarily wed to the AIDS crisis—a crisis which is still unresolved in many marginalized communities and touts a death toll of over half a million in the United States alone. Far from being inaccessible or dour, this production leans into the highs and lows of each character’s life with enthusiasm. The threads that emerge are the same today as they were thirty years ago. Despite our struggles, we still believe in love, friendship and the power of self-expression—and we still have hope, even when we have nothing else.
Cody Jenkins is our Mark Cohen. This character fits him like a glove. Jenkins is wiry, energetic and nerdy. He flails around with an unhinged energy which is quite appropriate for the role. His performance of “What You Own,” however, is a highlight. This number allows him to lean into the confusion of what is happening around him. When you really think about it, Mark is one of the most tragic characters in the musical. He is powerless to help his friends who are slipping away due to illness and addiction, while also realizing that this means he faces a potentially lonely near-future.
Coleman Cummings as Roger Davis is a bit more sedate than I would have preferred. While not a thoroughly terrible Roger, I’m not entirely sure that he was bringing the same energy to this performance as the other actors. This was even more apparent in “Another Day,” when he brushes up against Aiyana Smash’s Mimi Marquez. Smash is absolutely radiant in this role. Her wild gyrations during “Out Tonight” were both impressive and terrifying. So much of the emotional weight of the musical hinges on Mimi being able to hit the correct highs and lows. I am happy to report that Aiyana Smash is pitch perfect.
Another stand out performance is Joshua Tavares as Angel Schunard. Tavares is a bit more willowy than some incarnations of Angel, but don’t let that fool you. Tavares delivers big on Angel’s larger-than-life persona and comedic timing. Likewise, Shafiq Hicks is believably tender as Tom Collins. The pair come together for a heart-warming “I’ll Cover You.”
Kelsee Sweigard as Maureen was another treat among many. Like Tavares, she initially struck me as a bit off-type for this role. Yet again, I was not disappointed. What can I say? There’s just something about a woman in jeans with a flower appliqued on the crotch. Along with Samantha Mbolekwa’s wonderful Joanne Jefferson, “Take Me or Leave Me” became an obvious highlight in addition to Sweigard’s hilarious rendition of “Over the Moon.”
Juan Luis Espinal rounds out the cast as the somewhat antagonistic Benny. He hit all the appropriately smarmy notes, as well as the friendly ones. The fantastic ensemble deserves credit for nailing down the detail work involved in this fantastic production. The complicated choreography and sheer number of moving parts make songs like “La Vie Boheme” very challenging. This number, along with the popular “Seasons of Love,” elevates this production above some of the more lazy renditions of the show that have cropped up over the years.
Technically, the show is still very loud. This is part of its charm, as it often evokes the energy of rock concert rather than a refined night at the theater. The set is chaotic and sometimes confusing in its design, and yet, it is never off-putting. The formula that seems to work for RENT relies upon being faithful to the original. This production seems to adhere to the “if it isn’t broke don’t fix it” mentality, which is much to its benefit.
RENT still tugs at all the right heartstrings and continues to have emotional resonance for current and past generations. A strong, energetic cast which features several stand out performances make this RENT a must-see.
Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, including one intermission.
RENT plays through November 17, 2019, at the National Theatre—1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C. Tickets can be purchased online.