by Jillian Carter
I admit that I went into the 20th anniversary production of RENT with super high expectations. As a theatre geek from the 90s, RENT will always be the musical that changed my idea of musical theatre. With its themes of poverty, AIDS, and finding yourself at the end of the millenium, it spoke to my teenage self in ways I had never thought musicals could.
That said, I felt the same kinds of emotion last night at the Lied Center for Performing Arts that I did the first time I heard the soundtrack in my friend’s basement. When the entire company joined in at the end of “Life Support,” swelling the vocals to create a gospel-like moment, I was hooked. Other vocal highlights included “Take Me or Leave Me,” which had the scatterbrained Maureen (an energetic Lyndie Moe) facing off intensely with standout Lencia Kebede (Joanne). It’s worth mentioning that Joanne is, in my opinion, a generally underrated character, but Kebede brought a depth to her that was refreshing.
The absolute best song of the night came from the incredibly talented Devinré Adams (Collins) with the second act reprise of “I’ll Cover You.” I was already in tears at that point, thanks to the remarkable chemistry between Adams and Javon King (Angel). By the time the lights went out at the end of the song, leaving Adams’s voice ringing out of the darkness, I was a weepy mess.
Speaking of lights, one of the most interesting technical aspects of this production is the lighting design. Designer Jonathan Spencer deftly used lights to create moods, separate spaces, and to suggest crowds when necessary. This was no small feat considering the immovable set design. Kudos to Mr. Spencer.
My husband and I were intrigued by some of the different choices made in this production than in productions we had seen in the past. For one, the character of Mimi (ably played by a relative newcomer to theatre, Deri’Andre Tucker) is much less grungy than we remembered. While I enjoyed this because it provided a nice juxtapositon between her and her love interest, Roger (Joshua Best who fit the role like a glove), my husband didn’t care for it. Also noticeably changed were some of the solo parts in company songs. Unlike past performances, there were small solos given to company members instead of the featured actors. I can only speculate, but this had to be because of the strength of the company members. Jasmine Lawrence, in particular, nearly brought the audience to its feet when she soared into the high notes during her “Seasons of Love” solo. The biggest change seemed to be in the interpretation of the character of Maureen. I’ve always seen her played as a rather nerdy woman, someone you could picture with Mark. Lyndie Moe brought out a much more sensual version of Maureen, which I didn’t mind, but I would have liked to see her play up the humor in her protest performance a bit more.
Overall, this was a good performance with many highs. The actors brought a high level of energy and emotion to their roles and were generally quite good. When reading the program notes and cast bios, I found it hard to believe that Tucker (Mimi) only made her theatrical debut in 2017 or that King (Angel) is a university student on his first tour. Of course all the characters are quite young, but still!
I was worried going in, but Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer-winner still holds up. Even after 20 years, his unapologetic exposition (Mark singing out that Roger’s girlfriend slit her wrists after leaving a note saying they had AIDS), stark design, and difficult-not-to-love characters have stood the test of time remarkably well. I’m glad we got the chance to see it and go “Out Tonight.”
If you go: RENT runs through Sunday at the Lied Center at 12th and R Streets. Remaining performances are Saturday, March 2, at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sunday, March 3, at 2:00 pm. Tickets may be purchased at the Lied Center box office or online. There will be $20 rush orchestra tickets available at the box office two hours prior to performances.
Jillian Carter is the editor of Appearing Locally, as well as a mother of four, playwright, actress, and director.
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