REVIEW BY NATALIA VIVINO
On January 25th, 1996, Rent made its off-Broadway debut shortly before its creator, Jonathan Larson, passed away unexpectedly in his New York apartment. His rock musical masterpiece became an instant hit, running for over twelve years on Broadway before closing on September 7th, 2008. Now, nearly six years later, the Hillcrest Center for the Arts proudly opened its own version of Rent to eager audiences on Thursday, August 21st. It completed its short run just three days later, and the amount of dedication brought forth in the production was wonderful to witness.
Modeled loosely off the opera La Bohéme by Giacomo Puccini, Rent is cleverly told through the eyes of aspiring filmmaker Mark Cohen, who documents the lives of his friends in New York City’s East Village, where they struggle as aspiring artists while living under the constant threat of AIDs. When Rent first opened, it was one of the first musicals of its kind to shed light on topics that were becoming all the more present in modern society, such as transvestism, same-sex relationships, and drug addiction. Though it may have raised a few eyebrows back then, it certainly opened doors for future contemporary musicals, introducing new possibilities in regards to content and style.
The cast of Rent displayed true strength as an ensemble. In numbers such as “Seasons of Love” and “Will I,” you could feel their energy radiate from within the theatre. Shows like Rent demand endurance, and their style is entirely unique. Several of the numbers progress seamlessly throughout the show. You could probably count the amount of speaking lines present in the entire musical with one hand, but that only adds to the impressiveness of the cast. They handled the challenge of singing through nearly the entire performance especially well.
Michael Levine, who played Mark, had the chance to portray one of his dream roles on stage. Levine achieved in embodying the character’s passionate, ambitious drive, as well as show off some impressive acting skills. Brent Ramirez played Roger, the struggling rock musician with a troubled past and Mark’s roommate. Ramirez displayed impressive vocal abilities, and when performing beside Levine, the two made a strong pair onstage. This was especially evident in the number “What You Own.” The rest of the show’s talented leading players included Kristi Ramirez as Mimi, Hunter Larsen as Maureen, Desiree Gillespie as Joanne, Ra’Shawn Durrell as Collins, Michael Sallee as Benny, and Andrew Frank as Angel.
Frank was an especial standout in this production. He brought forth a likeable charm to the stage, all the while adding to his character’s flamboyant personality. Angel symbolized one of the show’s most important central themes. Frank’s voice, energy, and charisma made him an instant favorite of the audience. Other standouts included Larsen and Gillespie. It was clear from the moment she opened her mouth that Larsen had a powerful singing voice as the rebellious Maureen, and during their duet titled “Take Me or Leave Me,” Gillespie’s vocals were showcased as well. Gillespie was a great fit for Joanne, and she embodied her bossy, organized personality with natural ease.
The Hillcrest Theatre on the Hill is known for its small size, but that didn’t stop the company of Rent from using the entire space to the best of their ability. At times, it felt as if the audience was actually a part of the grungy, urban atmosphere. Even the live five-piece band was cleverly concealed behind a portion of the set. It’s clear that director Amy Perkins took great care in bringing Rent to life. Although the show’s opening night was plagued by head mike troubles, the entire company continued on with the performance, taking care to keep the audience fully immersed in the story. By the second act, most of the technical issues were cleared up, and the show progressed smoothly without further incident.
Rent isn’t just another modern rock musical. It’s a story that sends a message of love and support while paying tribute to those who suffered during the AIDS epidemic. It remains one of the most well known musicals of all time. Without a doubt, the hard work and devotion of everyone involved in Rent truly paid off.