Review: ‘Rent’ 20th Anniversary Tour at the Eccles is rousing, relevant

The company of the "Rent 20th Anniversary Tour." Photo Courtesy: Carol Rosegg 2018

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, June 28, 2019 (Gephardt Daily) — I seriously can’t believe “Rent” is 20 years old. Actually, it opened in 1996, but this is the official “Rent — 20th Anniversary Tour.” The Zions Bank Broadway at the Eccles presentation is playing at the theater at 131 S. Main St. through Sunday.

It goes without saying that most of us have seen the show, at least once. I suddenly remembered just today that I saw the West End version in London when it first opened. It ran on Broadway for 12 years. There was also an ill-fated “Rent Live!” which was screened on TV recently and starred such notables as Vanessa Hudgens, Jordan Fisher and Tinashe. The whole thing went a bit wrong, however, when during dress rehearsal, Brennin Hunt, who played the wannabe rock star Roger, broke his foot. The show was performed in its entirety with limited physical activity before a studio audience as scheduled, with Hunt performing in a wheelchair. The simultaneous telecast consisted almost entirely of the prerecorded dress rehearsal from the prior night. Only the final 15 minutes of the program, as well as an encore performance of “Seasons of Love” featuring the original 1996 Broadway cast, was broadcast live.

Why do I even mention this, you might wonder? First, because “Rent Live!” if you watch it on television, isn’t really live, because it’s on TV. So it loses a lot of the thrilling, visceral, goose bumpy, rock concert quality you get in a theater. It doesn’t pack even a quarter of the punch that these great songs do if you are listening to them, well, actually live. Second, I would argue that the show, when it’s successful, has a raw, exciting, passionate, immediate quality that might have been achieved if the producers of the TV version had kept the actor playing Roger in a wheelchair and done a spontaneous concert version. Now THAT would have been thrilling.

But, on to last night’s show, which had all the above great qualities. It’s almost like some of the other mediocre versions of “Rent” had faded away and we were somehow watching the show and it was exciting as it was when it first opened.

To give you a little back story, “Rent” originally opened off Broadway, then transferred to Broadway on April 29, 1996. The show’s reputation had an inadvertent jolt when its creator, Jonathan Larson, died unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm just as the show began previews for its Broadway run, a production that won the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Larson’s death brought even more attention to the emotional show, a re-imagining of Puccini’s La Bohème, about young artists struggling with poverty, drugs and relationships.

What’s really interesting about seeing the show 20 years on is that many of the themes are still searingly relevant today in 2019, including sexuality, homelessness, immigration, and relationships in the face of AIDS. And the theme that hits most close to home is contained in the song “What You Own,” with the lyrics: “And when you’re living in America/ At the end of the millennium/ You’re what you own.” In 2019, that still rings frighteningly true.

In a nutshell, the story follows documentary filmmaker Mark (played by Logan Marks), who lives with Roger (Joshua Bess), who falls in love with exotic dancer and heroin addict Mimi (in this performance understudy Alex Lugo), while Mark and Roger’s former roommate Collins (Devinré  Adams) falls for drag queen Angel (Javon King), and Mark’s performance artist ex Maureen (Lyndie Moe) gets involved with lawyer Joanne (Lencia Kebede).

Because the show is a rock musical, and many of the songs have become anthems, a trap that other versions have fallen into (including, I would say, “Rent Live!” on Fox) is that the director just advises the actors to focus on the songs, and it becomes a bit showboaty — who has the flashiest voice?

Thankfully, in this production, there is so much more than that. I believe this is a non-Equity tour. There is an advantage to this: It’s less slick, there’s more passion, more connection, more intensity and real feeling. And it seems the director, Evan Ensign, has also encouraged his actors to dig a little deeper into their relationships and friendships. The relationships between Collin and Angel and Roger and Mimi seem quieter, more genuine, deeper. Even the tumultuous relationship between Maureen and Joanne has verisimilitude and depth.

And for me, it’s this tone that made it worth seeing.

As for the production values, we have a mix of original Broadway creatives with Marlies Yearby as choreographer, Tim Weil on music supervision and additional arrangements and Angela Wendt on costume design. All are strong. I particularly loved the costumes, which again, are fun and jazzy, like Angel’s Santa costume, without making the characters seem cartoonish or too flashy. It’s designed as if the characters put together the costumes themselves, without too much money, which is perfectly apt.

I LOVED the set, adapted by Matthew E. Maraffi from scenic design by Paul Clay. It has different levels and staircases and doors, but done in a naturalistic way, so at times the characters were partially hidden or part of the backdrop. It had the grimy quality of New York at that time. There is also a stage left giant structure that could be a wonderful, slightly abstract, urban, Christmas tree, made of a pile of bike parts and other discarded items; pretty sure I saw a festive wreath and a doll head in there. The lighting design by Jonathan Spencer used plenty of shadowy moments, but the times when that futuristic trash tree was lit, at times all in orange lights, were just stunning and curiously emotional. And this is true, in fact, was true for the whole show.

I was happy to realize that we seem to have stepped away from some of the recent productions of “Rent,” which I felt had lost their soul and their heart, and returned full-circle to the show as I feel it was meant to be.

The remaining shows are Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the Eccles box office, by visiting Broadway-at-, or by calling 801-355-ARTS.


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