Welcome to the sound and sheer energy of ‘Rent’ at Signature Theatre

In these still difficult times, 'Rent' is a much-needed tonic for the soul.

La Vie Bohème is in the air. Puccini’s 1896 opera continues to inspire. This month, director Franco Zeffirelli’s blockbuster staging just reopened at the Met to deliver this greatly beloved tale of starving and love-struck bohemians. Here, across town, IN Series just served up an animated version of the opera set “in the [Columbia] heights,” where the actual singers were relegated to standing in the dark at the sides of the stage trying to lip-sync to a curious mash of cartoon styles. There are certain stories that catch every new generation revealing “where we are now.”

Signature Theatre has reopened its doors post-pandemic shutdown with the rock musical Rent, Jonathan Larson’s creation loosely based on La Bohème’s characters and story. It’s a ripping good choice. The sound and sheer energy of the work and these singer-dancers raise our pulse and welcome us back to the American musical.

Arianna Rosario (Mimi Marquez), Jake Loewenthal (Mark Cohen), Ines Nassara (Joanne Jefferson), Katie Mariko Murray (Maureen Johnson), Josh A. Dawson (Tom Collins), and Vincent Kempski (Roger Davis) in ‘Rent.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner has directed Rent as if we’re in the midst of and sharing in the characters’ challenges with the story happening all around us. The take on the production, more than 25 years after it first opened, proves once again that groups of young people may suffer greatly and will face enormous odds at being included in society’s plan; they will be blamed and shunned for society’s ills but will find community with one another and ultimately choose love.

The work has had a long and dramatic journey that has become the stuff of legends.

It was 1993, and James Nicola, who had recently transplanted from being the casting director at Arena Stage to become artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop, received a sprawling book, music, and lyrics and began assembling artists for a workshop. Mind you, Nicola, like so many artists in NYC, was still reeling from the deaths of that generation’s pandemic: AIDS. At one point he told me he didn’t think he could face one more day of an AIDS play. Many artists had lost so many friends and loved ones, but the workshop was followed by an off-Broadway production, and Nicola stayed with it — even when Larson suddenly died of an aortic dissection the night before the premiere. The show transferred to Broadway, won posthumously a Pulitzer Prize for Larson and a Tony for Best Musical, and a film was made in 2005, featuring many from the original cast.

Today’s generation can find new meaning in the show’s anthems of resistance and resiliency. We have now our very own pandemic, which we have yet to come through. Gardiner has downplayed, even excised perhaps, certain recurring references to AIDS. He brings out the resonances to our own isolation, depression, fear, and the fragile economic underpinning of people who were already on the edge and suddenly feel shattered.

New York’s Lower East Side becomes any urban corner in today’s changing world. In DC we’ve all seen exacerbated what happens when economic shutdown and gentrification collide. In Set Designer Paige Hathaway’s masterly immersive world, we’re all pushed out on the street, outside abandoned tenements, forced to rub up against each other and form uneasy alliances and open ourselves to new life experiences, perspectives, and identities.

The balance of the storytelling and what seemed radical in the original has miraculously shifted.

David Merino (Angel Dumott Schunard) in ‘Rent.’ Photo by Margot
Schulman.

Take Angel, played by David Merino. As I remember in the original, Angel seemed like an outcast wraith, and his end was apparent from the beginning. Merino not only proves that Angel is the moral compass of the story but seems the most well-adjusted, “normal” character in the play. Merino’s spin on Puccini’s Musetta-as-drag-queen is a thing of beauty and courage (aided by Erik Teague’s gorgeous costume choices). He has a light-up-the-room smile and kicks and splits that make the audience appreciatively catcall a number like “Today 4 U.” Merino also cares deeply for others and shares whatever is available, including big doses of forgiveness and understanding.

The touching relationship Merino builds with the character of Tom Collins carries the tender heart of the production. Josh Dawson plays Tom with the intellectual gravitas of the philosopher professor he is meant to be. He maps most successfully the arc for his character and their relationship, including falling in love and his commitment to enduring tragic loss. His singing abilities match his acting chops, standing out in both tone and diction.

Cheers to Rickey Tripp who understands stage composition better than just about anyone I know and keeps the show moving but still knows how to make gesture and choreography emerge from character.

The cast of ‘Rent.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The cohesion of this ensemble telling the story of community feels authentic. We can feel the love and loss that went on before these singer-actors were able to come back into a rehearsal room where cast becomes family. When the company launches into the opening of Act II “Seasons of Love,” there were a lot of tears on stage and in the audience.

Jake Loewenthal (Mark) and Vincent Kempski (Roger) play their central roles in the story as the “roomies,” a guitar-playing songwriter and a filmmaker documentarian, both pulling back in energy in an appropriate sublimation of classic central casting of a two “white dudes” story. Mark is a depressive whose cause is implied rather than trumpeted. His shame and fear in his illness, which isolates him to the point of total inaction, is touching at times but maybe too much of an emotional wash. Roger is a rattled, obsessed artist whose loneliness and self-isolation come as a surprise to him. Both young men are shown running away from fear of commitment, shame, and self-loathing: by that I mean they are young people.

At times it was hard to understand the lyrics, and I’d love Signature to address the balance between vocals and orchestra, Music Director Mark Meadows. Hey, okay, this is raw rock music!

Ines Nassara (Joanne Jefferson) in ‘Rent.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

On the other hand, I love the unfolding of understated numbers like Loewenthal’s duet in “Tango: Maureen” with Ines Nassara, which is strong and authentic: her anger is palpable trying to keep up with her promiscuous, unreliable partner Maureen.

One of the things I’ve always loved about the work is the complex characterizations of Mimi and Maureen. Neither is what you could call a “good” girl. It’s a world where promiscuity and addiction carry heavy tolls. Arianna Rosario manages to navigate between Mimi’s sexually explicit “currency” to get a fix to then reveal the soft vulnerability of this tragic creature. Kate Mariko Murray as Maureen plays the tough leader-organizer of community resistance then reveals how unmoored she is in her personal life, leaving a trail of betrayals and careless actions in her wake. Her hard glittering eyes and the way she can suck up energy in the room make her feel less of the group and more all about herself. Murray is fiendishly self-absorbed in her performance-art solo “Over the Moon.”

Signature Theatre has been a fixture of DC and, as one critic put it, “setting the gold standard for musicals” in the area. It is good for our community that the company has survived these bumpy going-on-two years. In these (still) difficult times, Rent is a much-needed tonic for the soul.

Running Time: Two hours 50 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

Photo of Pussy Noir by Christopher Mueller

Rent plays through January 2, 2022, in the MAX at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA. For tickets ($40–$108), call (703) 820-9771 or go online. Information about ticket discounts is available here.

The Rent program is available here.

Closed captions for Rent will be available for every show via the GalaPro app. 

Signature’s COVID safety plans can be found here.

 

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Playwright, librettist, songwriter, director, theater reviewer, and actress Susan Galbraith has worked in London, Singapore, New York, Minneapolis, Prague, and Boston before settling in DC. Her resume includes working with international directors including Peter Brooks, Miřenka Čechová, and Peter Sellars; choreographer Takao Tomono; and rock-and-roll superstar Prince. After moving to Washington, she helped found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and in the past decade led the development of original works across the spectrum of music-theater including musicals and opera. For over a decade, she was also pleased to support the greater Washington theater community as a happy member of the reviewing team of DC Theater Scene under Lorraine Treanor. She holds a BA from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and two graduate degrees, including a Fulbright fellowship. She now lives in Kalorama with three cats, a happy Samoyed, and a most understanding partner. You can read more of her theater writing here.

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