For millennial theater kids, it is hard to overstate the cultural importance of Rent. First produced in 1996, the contemporary retelling of Pucini’s La bohème introduced me and my peers to rock ballads, profanity, drug use, sex, homelessness, and AIDS. Presented in Philly as part of its “25th Anniversary Farewell” tour, this Rent feels adolescent, that is: young, passionate, loud, and slightly dumb.
Luckily, this non-equity tour features a cast ready to leave it all out on the stage. Many of these performers, younger than the show itself, bring fresh interpretations to iconic roles. If your only association with RENT is the 2005 film adaptation, seeing this show with new talent helps obfuscate the musical’s glaring lack of subtlety.
Philadelphia native and CAPA alum Shariq Hicks plays up Tom Collins’s nerdiness to a wonderfully endearing effect. Javond King puts in a virtuosic and athletic (if not a little broad) performance as the tragic drag queen Angel. Aiyana Smash’s Mimi is an agile and intense counterpart to Coleman Cummings’s emo boy Roger. Lydie Moe’s Maureen is perfectly self-interested and charismatic; her partner, Joanne, played by Rayla Garske, is a sturdy, grounding force with killer vocals. On Friday night’s performance I got the chance to see two excellent understudies perform the roles of Marc and Benny. Tom Kaiser brought a quiet and beautiful delicacy to narrator Marc, and Thomas Purvis’s Benny was goofier and more endearing than any Benny I’ve seen before.
After 25 years in the public consciousness, RENT shows its age. What counted for political intensity in 1996 reads as overly shallow and performative now. Serious issues like homelessness, drug addiction, and the AIDS epidemic are sometimes treated with a little too much glib showmanship. However, the show’s iconic and heartbreaking moments: the act one closer, “La Vie Boheme,” the entreactre “Seasons of Love,” and the sorrowful “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” make a case for the work’s staying power.
Rent, by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Evan Ensign. [Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad Street] March 4-6, 2022; kimmelcenter.org.