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"RENT" still feels universal, 25 years later

Last Sunday, Jan. 30,  I went to DPAC to see “RENT, The 25th Anniversary ‘Farewell Season of Love’ Tour.” RENT was written by Jonathan Larson in 1996 and tells the story of eight friends, new and old, who struggle to make a living and a life at the height of the AIDS epidemic in New  York City. It was my second time seeing the musical and my first time at DPAC. Needless to say, my expectations were high. 

My first impression was a good one; the whole cast came out onstage when the house lights were still on, creating a welcoming atmosphere as Mark started his opening monologue. The lights went down as the music came up, Larson’s signature rock style pounding in our ears. Unfortunately, the sound mixing left something to be desired, especially in the opening ensemble number. At times throughout that song and the rest of the show, the instruments drowned out the vocals and made picking out harmonies difficult. Regardless, the pit deserves a special shoutout; they performed from onstage and, with only four people, recreated the score admirably.

During this performance, I paid special attention to the relationships between the characters. Two relationships in particular stood out to me: Mimi Marquez and Roger Davis and Mark Cohen and Roger. The first is a romantic relationship, and even 28 rows back, I believed the intense emotions felt by the couple over the course of the musical: love, lust, anger, fear, devastation, and relief. Aiyana Smash (Mimi) was spectacular in her solo, “Out Tonight,” which transitioned into an equally spectacular duet with Roger. He and Mimi complemented and challenged each other throughout the number, creating a memorable performance.

As for Mark and Roger, their friendship is exemplified in their Act 2 duet, “What You Own.” Over four minutes, both characters experience their own epiphanies about their paths in life, neither character acknowledging the other’s presence onstage. At the end of the song, the two men hug each other, an embodiment of their healed relationship following their fight in the previous song, “Goodbye Love.”  

The best solo of the night was “Over the Moon.” Lyndie Moe (Maureen Johnson) had big shoes to fill, stepping into a role originated by superstar Idina Menzel. “Over the Moon” is Maureen’s introductory solo, and she knocked it out of the park. She was the perfect amount of charismatic, funny, dramatic, and she encouraged just enough audience participation during the “mooing” section of the song. 

Of course, no review of RENT is complete without mentioning “Seasons of Love.” The Act 2 opener, the cast filed onstage before the house lights went down, similar to how they began the show. The song’s power is in its minimalism: all the actors standing at the edge of the stage, singing directly to the audience, and one soprano soloist providing an enviable descant to tie the piece together. 

The finale reflects the togetherness with which Act 2 starts, the entire cast huddled on stage, including Angel, who runs back on to join the rest of the company in spite of his death earlier in the show. Another note about the ending: all the actors bowed at once, instead of the typically staggered bows that follow musicals. Having everyone bow at once emphasizes RENT’s theme of friendship and found family; it’s a heartwarming end to a show with its fair share of tragedy. 

The performance wasn’t flawless. “Today 4 U” and “Take Me or Leave Me” are two powerhouse numbers that fell short for me. Javon King (Angel Dumott Schunard) did much better on the acting front than the singing or dancing, which unfortunately left his Angel’s solo less than perfect. In “Take Me or Leave Me,” the problem wasn’t musical. Both Joanne and Maureen had excellent vocals, but they lacked the natural chemistry that Mimi and Roger or even Mark and Roger displayed. The song represents a boiling point that both women reach, seemingly breaking up for good — only to get back together one song later. Unfortunately, I was not invested enough in their relationship to appreciate the tension-ridden piece.  

An emotional highlight of the show was “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” The number starts with Collins, played by Shafiq Hicks, singing solo; by the end, the whole cast is once again standing in a line at the front of the stage, singing to the audience. It’s no accident that two of the most emotionally charged moments in the show break the fourth wall. Larson’s music tells incredibly specific stories that still manage to feel universal, especially the emotions woven into the score. Singing directly to the audience reminds us that we’re all living out bits and pieces of RENT in our everyday lives. 

The 25th Anniversary Tour of “RENT” leaned heavily into the lyric “To being an ‘us’ for once instead of a ‘them’” from “La Vie Boheme,” the Act 1 finale, which romanticizes the bohemian lifestyle that the majority of the characters have. Although ‘starving artist’ is hardly a title that most Duke students — or their parents, for that matter — would covet, the themes of togetherness, gratitude and living in the moment serve as good reminders of what a worthwhile life really is. 

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