These days, you’ll hear “Rent” sometimes called “the Hamilton of its time.” While the parallels are obvious—throngs of borderline obsessed young fans; groundbreaking diversity; a boundary-pushing, sung-through story; and critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama—“Rent” had a political urgency and timeliness not always remembered. Signature Theatre rightly draws attention to this crucial historical context in its sensational new staging of the 1996 rock opera, proving the show remains evocative and thrilling even today.
…sensational new staging…soars.
This modernization of Puccini’s “La Boheme” captures a year in the life of Alphabet City, NY, as the AIDS epidemic, drugs, and housing crisis sweep through the squats and slums. Signature Theatre’s scenic design by Paige Hathaway leans into the political, with graffiti and protest signs declaring “No Housing, No Peace! – Lower East Side Squatters” and “AIDS: We need research not hysteria.” A soft haze, illuminated with a mix of Christmas and spot lights (designed by Adam Honoré), gives the theatre a misty glow, like a foggy winter night. The tastefully grungy stage, cutting through the center of the audience, immerses as the eight main characters fall in and out of friendships, love, and life.
Mark Cohen (Jake Lowenthal), an aspiring filmmaker, frequently narrates as he captures his friends’ lives with his camera. Mark’s roommate, Roger Davis, is soft and sad in actor Vincent Kempski interpretation, with greasy long hair and a slouchy grey cardigan, fitting for the washed-up rockstar crawling back from rock-bottom. Mimi Marquez, portrayed by Arianna Rosario as the cutest, drug-addict exotic-dancer you’ll ever find, stirs some life back into Roger when she knocks on his door for a light, while Benny (Da’Von T. Moody), the sell-out ex-roommate of Roger and Mark, kicks off the plot by demanding a year’s rent on Christmas Eve. Actor Josh A. Dawson captures the audience’s hearts as sweet and gentle Tom Collins, a philosopher and friend of Mark and Rogers who meet-cutes with vivacious drag queen, Angel Dumott Schunard (David Merino), after getting mugged on Christmas Eve. Finally, Maureen Johnson (Katie Mariko Murray), Mark’s ex-girlfriend, and Joanne Jefferson (Ines Nassara), Maureen’s new girlfriend, round out the octet.
Costuming, designed by Erik Teague, measures up to the iconic outfits of the Broadway production without replicating. Angel and Maureen’s outfits in particular stand out as delightfully over-the-top. While Angel’s clothes walk the line between risqué and glamorous—especially the extremely red gown and thigh-high leather boots she rocks on Christmas Day 1989—Maureen’s are absurd, including a purple alligator-skin coat with fur trim, fitting her performance artist persona.
Choreography, by Rickey Tripp, draws from a variety of styles and inspirations, starting with the head-banging early number, “Rent,” where explosive dance throbs with anger. “Today for You,” Angel’s introductory solo, takes notes from New York’s ball scene and proves so outrageously fun, you’ll look past the dog-murder it recounts, while the dancers in “Sante Fe” float in the lightness of fantasy. “La Vie Boheme”—the ode to Bohemia, counter-culture, and joie de vivre— finds a rhythmic heartbeat in the chaos through synchronized stepping.
Musically, “Rent” soars. A small five-piece band orchestrates, but strong sound design by Ryan Hickey allows the music to fill the intimate theatre, shining through most clearly in quieter numbers like “One Song Glory.” The strong voices of the company melt into harmony, making even the songs we all skip on the soundtrack, like “Christmas Bells” and “Voice Mail,” entrancing. The score has always been the best attribute of “Rent,” but some lyrics are fast, complex, and overlapping. It’s best enjoyed when you’re already familiar so give the soundtrack a listen first (but beware of spoilers).
“Rent” is not without flaws. Due to the tragic and sudden death of its composer, Jonathon Larson, the night before its Off-Broadway opening, its book was locked, immortalizing some weaknesses that otherwise would have likely been worked out by its Broadway opening, such as the underwhelming reveal of the song, “Your Eyes,” on which Roger supposedly labors all year. It also, like any work, reflects its age and bias. If written today, perhaps Mark and Roger—the two white men in the story—would not be so central.
By and large, “Rent” still resonates today in its portrait of imperfect but empathetic humanity and a still-relevant critique of gentrification. It reminds us to treasure the people and moments we hold dear because tomorrow has no guarantee. Signature Theatre’s new production and cast revitalize this story of loss and hope at a time when we all need it. Experience it while you can this holiday season.
Runtime: 2 hrs and 45 minutes including one 15-minute intermission
Advisory: For age 13+
“Rent” runs through January 2, 2022 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA 22206. The theatre will have discussion nights on November 17 and 30, and a Pride Night on November 19. Tickets are available for purchase online or through the TodayTix app.