The 20th Anniversary Tour of “Rent” packs almost as big a punch as the first tour to Washington, DC did so many years ago (I saw that one, too) but it’s not just nostalgia speaking when I say that amidst a largely positive production, there are a few sour notes.
… the show was stolen by standouts Aiyana Smash as Mimi and Shafiq Hicks as Collins.
Let’s begin with the positives, of which there are many. The majority of the cast brings a hard-hitting energy to their performances, full of frenetic energy that explodes off of the stage. They did original Choreographer Marlies Yearby and Associate Choreographer MiRi Park proud with their dynamic delivery.
While almost all of the cast was excellent, the show was stolen by standouts Aiyana Smash as Mimi and Shafiq Hicks as Collins. Hicks possesses a positively superb voice and while he shone on each of his solos, he brought the house down with his heartbreaking rendition of the reprise of “I’ll Cover You.” His range and expressiveness and variety of tone were unmatched on the stage tonight, but matching him in star power was Smash in her fresh interpretation of Mimi.
I’m used to seeing a somewhat fragile and vulnerable Mimi who is a more sweetly seductive counterpart to her love interest, Roger. In Smash’s performance, Mimi was assertively, aggressively strong and confident – and it was so different, but fabulous. When she jumps on the table during “Another Day,” I felt like Wonder Woman was storming the set. And yet, in Act Two, Smash displays the range of her acting ability by giving the needed heartbreak and pathos to her character, even singing with a lighter, breathier tone to convey her emotions during certain songs. She was truly the star of the show tonight.
While Cody Jenkins in the role of Mark was necessarily more subdued than, say, Mimi, he was quietly stunning and glued the entire show together with his heart and performance and it was a treat to see him get to shine more exuberantly in “Tango: Maureen.”
Roger is traditionally the hothead of the group, constantly blowing his top and lashing out at his friends. Cummings’ unruffled energy was misplaced and he lacked emotion in the sadder scenes in Act Two. And, while Cummings has a beautiful singing voice, it’s not a gritty rock’n’roll voice which is the essence of Roger’s character. We are talking late 90’s here – Jason Mraz and auto-tuning were not standard fare because rock was still alive and kicking – think Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder and Green Day.
The final off-putting element, which was jarring from beginning to end of the show, were the male jeggings. As someone who was a teenager in the 90’s, let me assure Costume Designer Angela Wendt that jeggings were simply not worn by men at that time, especially not straight aspiring rock musicians. Straight leg skinny plaid trousers or straight leg jeans with a skinny cut, yes. But jeans and pants hadn’t started containing spandex at that point and furthermore, there was an awful lot of homophobia in the 90’s and jeggings on a straight male would have never been worn. So I cannot tell you odd and distracting it was to have both male leads, Roger (Coleman Cummings) and Mark (Cody Jenkins) in stretchy skinny jeans hugging their bodies in a style reminiscent of the last five years in fashion instead of twenty years ago.
Does it matter? I think yes, it does. Not only is this tour a trip down memory lane for many of us who will see it, but it is also quite deliberately set in the late 1990’s at the cusp of the millennium, as one of the songs points out. This story is about a moment in time when answering machines still existed and landlines were widely used and AZT was a novel new treatment for AIDS that, while it helped, wasn’t yet enough to prevent death’s untimely march. So seeing a modern fashion trend on the two male leads was quite the faux pas and broke the rhythm of the play from the beginning for me. Again, I’m surprised because one would think that would be an easy mistake to avoid, especially when it so alters the tone and era of the characters whose lives we are being asked to invest in.
However, this is “Rent,” and while this particular production might not hit all points equally well, I still strongly urge you to go see it as the overall experience is very high quality. And, for you younger people out there, “Rent” was the “Hamilton” of the late 90’s! But even more than being as popular as “Hamilton,” it broke taboos around AIDS and the LGBTQ community that were still in place in mainstream entertainment media, from television to theatre to movies, while also being a great show. Due to the mostly outstanding cast, fantastic pit orchestra, and dynamic and engaging choreography, I highly recommend seeing the “Rent – 20th Anniversary Tour” at National Theatre. It’s only here this week, so don’t miss it!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 13 and up.
“Rent” plays at National Theatre through November 17, 2019. For more information, click here.