‘Rent’, A Musical of Borrowed Time, Rocks Tacoma
In a two-night stop on the acclaimed musical’s 20th anniversary tour, Tacoma gets a special treat as former Pacific Lutheran University student plays a leading role. It runs through September 25.
I can’t believe he’s gone / I can’t believe you’re going /
I can’t believe this family must die
Rent, the many awards-winning rock musical, follows a year in the life of young people living on borrowed time: residentially, because they’re being evicted for non-payment; and literally, because several have been diagnosed with a virus that, at the time, still carried the weight of a likely death sentence.
Rent‘s treatment of HIV and AIDS is a unique one. It’s an overall uplifting and hopeful piece, but it doesn’t skirt the issues. It shows death, but it doesn’t dwell there. It hints at horrible mistreatment, but chooses love. It bucks the temptation to portray the virus as the “gay plague”, but doesn’t straight-wash the crisis, either, settling on a balanced approach. It speaks openly of AZT, T cells, and support groups.
And above all, it shows people living their lives, in a bustling creative scene in New York in the mid-’90s. Artists balance their hopes and talents with the need for present income. Partners of all genders and orientations deal with trust, jealousy, heartbreak, tiffs, and making up. New love interests grapple with when and how to disclose their status. A musician considers whether he can leave a satisfying legacy before the virus progresses (“One Song Glory”). Friends and roommates become family and support systems; even as they live in a building without heat and often without lights, they cover each other, both financially to stave off homelessness and with sheets and blankets in sickness and death (“I’ll Cover You”).
Rent is a celebration of both life and death. Perhaps it was divinely ordained that its bookwriter/lyricist/composer, Jonathan Larson, would create such a work. Larson, who died at age 35, would never see any of his masterwork’s success. His death, caused by an undiagnosed heart problem, occurred suddenly, the night before Rent went into previews off-Broadway. The show went on to have one of the longest-ever Broadway runs; won Larson posthumous Tony Awards and a Pulitzer; became firmly entrenched in the musical canon; and is now three years into its “20th anniversary” tour (is that like Leos having a “birthday month”?).
It was the occasion of this 20th anniversary tour that brought Rent to Tacoma’s Pantages Theater for a two-night, midweek stop, which began tonight and runs through tomorrow.
The cast is fantastic, and play nicely together. Coleman Cummings is engaging as Roger Smith (the aforementioned musician searching for his legacy song), and meshes well with Cody Jenkins (as co-lead, filmmaker Mark Cohen) and Aiyana Smash (as dancer and love interest Mimi Marquez). The Tacoma shows are a special homecoming for Cummings, who was raised in Snohomish County and attended Tacoma’s Pacific Lutheran University before heading to New York.
Surprise standouts were Rayla Garske, who in minor roles had few lines but whose vocals soared for the stars when given the chance to explode (particularly in the second act-opener, “Seasons of Love”); and Kelsee Sweigard as Maureen Johnson, whose humorous delivery in the wonderfully bizarre “Over the Moon” sequence matched her strong vocals. Joshua Tavares is sassy and funny and tender as Angel Schunard, the drag queen, who makes some eye-popping leaps in heels.
On the downside, this stop had some sound issues — not tone, which sounded great, but the balance of volume. In several songs in the first act, the actors weren’t mic’d up enough and the band was a bit too loud. The greatest crime was in the biggest rockingest ass-kickingest song, “Out Tonight” — a hard enough song to master with its leaps in key — where the volume differential left Smash (as Mimi) stuck with practically yelling in parts to keep up with the too-loud guitar. In the second act, they seemed to “solve” it by turning the band down, which just left a couple songs anemic. By the end of the show, they’d smoothed it out — which bodes better for the second night of the stop.
Overall, it’s a rockin’ production of a rockin’ show — a beautifully written modern epic, wonderfully performed.
Jonathan Larson’s artistic legacy also lives on through, among other things, the Jonathan Larson Grants. The grants, awarded to musical theatre writers, librettists and composers early in their careers, are designed as an “unconditional annual investment in individual talent” to help foster sustainable musical theatre careers; read more here. Recipients whose work has touched the Seattle area recently include Shaina Taub (read NWT’s feature on Taub’s musical co-adaptation of As You Like It for Public Works, here), and writing team Michelle Elliott and Danny Haengil Larsen (read NWT’s interview with Elliott and Larsen, here).
Rent: 20th Anniversary Tour runs through 9/25 at Pantages Theater in downtown Tacoma. Tickets up to $129, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered, multi-stall, mostly not accessible, and involve many stairs. An accessible and gender-neutral restroom is located on the third floor, reachable by elevator; and theatre is wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.