Closing out Paper Mill’s season in high style, Jonathan Larson’s Rent kicks off the summer with a high-spirited production that captures the spirit of the Bohemia that was New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1990s. It’s an era when art seemed to blossom like wildflowers when abandoned buildings teemed with squatting young artists, and when the specter of AIDS loomed in everyone’s daily life.
Larson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony® Award-winning musical had its first performance, sadly, the day after he unexpectedly died. The story and its music is a nostalgic record of that time of mixed loss and hope.
It is directed by Zi Alikhan with choreography by Steph Paul. It centers around a small chosen family of friends over the period of a year. Roger (Matt Rodin) is a rock musician looking to create one perfect song to be remembered by. Mark (Zachary Noah Piser), his roommate, is a videographer recording the lives of his friends for his own masterpiece. Performance artist Maureen (Mackenzie Meadows), Mark’s ex, and lawyer Joanne (Leana Rae Concepcion) are a turbulent lesbian couple.
Computer whiz Tom Collins (Terrance Johnson) hooks up with transsexual Angel (Olivia Lux). Mimi (Alisa Melendez) is a streetwalker who is attracted to the brooding Roger. Ben (Jordan Barrow) is a former roommate of Roger and Mark who marries into wealth and now owns the building they all once shared. To add to the pressures of daily life in Alphabet City, Roger, Mimi, Angel, and Tom are all HIV-positive.
The songs are by turns upbeat and emotionally raw, kicking off with the title number, a defiant statement from Roger and Mark to landlord Ben. Mimi’s “Light My Candle” is a sweet expression of her almost innocent seduction of Roger. Angel’s “Today for You” is a sassy expression of perseverance, while Tom’s “Santa Fe” is a country-tinged dream of a better life out west. “Take Me or Leave Me” is an explosion of repressed resentments between Joanne and Maureen.
The show’s two best-known anthems are well represented in this production. “La Vie Boheme,” while appearing to lose coherence and energy toward the end, is still a joyous, rap-like shout-out to everything that defines freedom to these modern Bohemians. And the touching “Seasons of Love” (“525,600 minutes…”) is sung with life-affirming power by the ensemble.
Paper Mill’s design team has come up with a visual melange that encapsulates the artistic upheaval of the early ’90s, starting with Chika Shimizu’s set, based on the original scenic design by Paul Clay, and Cha See’s lighting. The projection design of Nicholas Hussong and Jamie Godwin utilizes both standard wall projections as well as using multiple television screens to give depth to the story and show Mark’s videographic talents. Rodrigo Muñoz’ costumes are thrift-shop chic glorified.
Make no mistake about it — the Paper Mill Playhouse’s revival of Jonathan Larson’s Rent is lively and loud, poignant and funny, well-acted and well-sung and, well, a joy to watch. For a high-flying evening to kick off the summer, I strongly recommend seeing this production of Rent!