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DETROIT– Rent has taken up residence in Detroit’s Fisher Theatre as part of its 20th Anniversary Tour. Written by Jonathan Larson, Rent originally debuted on Broadway in 1996, although Larson died suddenly before it opened and never saw it become a huge success. It won four Tony Awards for 1996, and had a twelve-year run on Broadway.
While very loosely based on the Puccini opera La bohème and addressing classic themes of love, betrayal and loss, this version of Rent directed by Evan Ensign still feels modern and gritty; the music is anything but dated, and covers a variety of styles.
The basic story takes place in a spartan urban/industrial apartment in the city and revolves around struggling twenty-something roommates Mark (Logan Marks), an aspiring film chronicler, and Roger (Joshua Bess), a wanna-be rock guitarist still coming to grips with the death of his girlfriend. The rest of the characters are a combination of their friends and lovers, both current and former, and a collection of folk who eke out their existence near the building, struggling with homelessness, drug addiction and HIV infection.
There are three couples whose romantic relationships propel the story. Collins (Devinré Adams) falls for Angel (Javon King), a popular drag queen who shares his/her relative prosperity with the impoverished around him. Their relationship is the most solid and also the most endearing, as both characters have big hearts and a desire to do good for others, which is what they appreciate most about each other.
Mark’s rather wild ex-girlfriend Maureen (Lyndie Moe) has a new, volatile relationship with the more uptight Joanne (Lencia Kebede). Their relationship is intended to be fiery, although artsy, carefree Maureen seems to have all the chemistry, while business-like Joanne is more of a bore. It is a bit difficult to understand what they see in each other.
Roger finds himself drawn, against all his better instincts, to Mimi (Deri’Andra Tucker), a young exotic dancer with a past that haunts her. Roger and Mimi’s relationship is always the most tenuous; it is clear they have a strong attraction, but both have emotional scars and other issues which prevent them from opening up fully to each other, even though they are desperate to do so. It is easy to feel invested in Roger and Mimi as a couple, wanting them to overcome their self-imposed barriers and succeed as a couple.
The music is as much a part of what drives Rent as the plot is. The show is told almost entirely through music with little dialogue, so quite a bit of it is expository, but there are many musical moments that let the cast vocals shine, individually and as a group, and the cast is extremely capable here. Bess as Roger has a voice that is appropriately edgy enough for Rock ‘n’ Roll, but with classical roots lying underneath, showcased in “One Song Glory” and “Your Eyes.” Tucker as Mimi sings with lyrical ease in “Light My Candle” and “Out Tonight,” which also features clever railing choreography. Adams as Collins has a smooth, deep and mellow voice that really tugs at emotions in the R&B style ballad “I’ll Cover You” (Reprise).
Act II opens with the ensemble number “Seasons of Love,” the popular breakout hit of the show, and features a solo by Jasmine Lawrence that will leave you wishing for more, more, more of her voice. Other notable moments are “Life Support,” an ensemble piece with multiple layers of voices; “Tango: Maureen,” which blends character exposition in song with fun choreography; “Over the Moon,” Maureen’s awkward, modern performance art done with no music; and some cool choreography by Benny (Marcus John) and Angel in “Take Me or Leave Me.”
The set design (Paul Clay) is industrial, and lends a cold and slightly uncomfortable feeling while also being multi-purpose and practical. Props are limited to a few plot related items like telephones, candles and buckets. There is a lovely large paper lantern hanging above the set as an implied moon.
The downside to this production (and it was difficult to ignore) is that many of the lyrics are swallowed up during the higher energy numbers by the volume of the live band residing off to the side of the stage. Stylistically, the music enhanced the theme of the show, but it caused way too many “What did he say?” moments. “We’re Okay,” a number in which Joanne tries to carry on two separate telephone conversations simultaneously, is one example of an otherwise clever and interesting segment that was overshadowed by the music. In a Broadway touring production, this type of problem should be rare. Fortunately, there are many songs for which the music is not as heavy, allowing the vocals and the lyrics to be enjoyed more clearly.
Rent is a proven entity that gives audiences a range of emotions, a variety of personalities, compelling relationships and a good balance of musical styles. It has broad appeal, and will especially appeal to young adults who are mature enough for the themes of drug use, homosexuality and HIV infection. Rent is playing at the Fisher Theatre through January 20, 2019.