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RENT

6 Feb

“It Will Break Your Heart And Put It Back Together Again” or Temporary Autonomous Zones Set To Music

If you already love RENT, you don’t need convincing. If you have ever doubted that the Twin Cities has fabulously talented actors working today, this show will lay those to rest. If you worry that $49 is a lot of rent-money to pay for a show, RENT makes it worth it. If your idea of a Broadway show is big and slick and shallow, the local cast of RENT packs so much heart into the show it can bring tears to your eyes- it brings tears to theirs. As the sold out crowd rose for a standing ovation last night, more than one cast member was crying, the tears of gratitude, it seems, from being able to follow a dream.

The show is strong from the opening, the sense of immediate energy is palpable in the cavernous Lab Theatre. Director Andrew Rasmussen (who also produced the show) fills the space with dynamic choreography across the simple set of scaffolding and platforms, sending his cast catapulting from the beams, seeming heedless of their safety- AJ Eskridge, who fills multiple roles in the ensemble has enough energy to tear the house down. Rasmussen previously directed RENT at the G.R.E.A.T. Theatre in Saint Cloud, and his experience with the show makes for confident direction, unafraid of using the full length of the stage to his advantage and set up multiple tableaux to keep the actors bouncing off eachother. Although the band feels a little too loud throughout the show and the acoustics of the Lab Theatre tend to muddy the clarity of multiple sung lines at points, the cast work together to bring out the soul in the songs and intensify the intimacy of the show.

Harley Wood as Roger

The divergent cast are the reason the show works so well. As Rasmussen said in an earlier conversation about the show, “It’s about artists coming together to do their work…They’re not necessarily theatre people or some of them are theatre pros, I think that’s a great convergence of talent. Sometimes you just set them in the room and say “Go!” And they make their own magic.” A number of the cast were also involved in the production in Saint Cloud, commuting up every night to do the show. Most of the principals are returnees, and their joy to be back in these roles is evident and extends to the glowing cast. It is no wonder that Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, who originated the roles of Roger and Mark on Broadway in 1996 remain on tour with the show.

Minneapolis’ Mark, the film-maker and narrator of the show is played by Reid Harmsen, reprising the role from St. Cloud. Harmsen has the singing chops to carry the role, as a vet of the Children’s Theatre Company productions of Disney’s High School Musical, and his boyish, nerdy charm complements the character’s attempts at artistic integrity and fun-loving lead in RENT’s anthemic song, “La Vie Bohème”. Harley Wood (who fronts Minneapolis band Far From Falling) nails the angst-ridden rocker Roger (who lost his last girlfriend to suicide) with sidelong glances and furrowed brow, but also imbues the sorrow with a manic charm, fully rounding out the character. With a strong tenor he owns not only his solo moments but also his duets. Rising hip-hop starlet Maria Isa (who I interviewed for The A.V. Club prior to the show) plays Roger’s new love interest Mimi and vamps her way through most of the role, detracting somewhat from the pathos of the “stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold” archetype, but when she finds the stillness to sing, as in “Without You” her raw talent shines.

Jemecia Bennett as Joanne

As lesbian lovers Maureen and Joanne, Colleen Sommerville and Jemecia Bennett are a blaze of anti-establishment anger, joyous sexuality and catty glory. Bennett, known for her work at the Guthrie is especially breathtaking both as a singer and powerful stage presence. She commands attention and her duet with Harmsen, the lover/ex-lover banter “Tango: Maureen” is a cross-stage tour-de-force. Sommerville’s soulful licentiousness is a thrill to watch, tender and prickly, and Maureen’s performance art protest against the gentrification of the squat is both hilariously absurd and a resonant call to humanity in the desert of Facebook and Twitter. Also amongst the luminaries is Kinaundrae Lee (also of the ska band 2 Tone Runts) as the drag queen Angel, the vibrating spirit of the show. Angel gets some of the most energetic numbers (“Today 4 U”) as well as some of the most passionate (“I’ll Cover You”) with lover Tom Collins (the eminently likeable Lorin Yenor) which Lee works with creative depth and fire. The backing ensemble provides texture, warmth and humor, not to mention stellar singing. Maisie Twesme puts the perfect inflection on “Mo-om!” in the “Voice Mail” numbers and Margeaux Davis’ solo in “Seasons of Love” will break your heart and put it back together again.

Despite being created and set in the AIDS community of the Lower East Side of New York City in the 1990s, RENT continues to feel prescient. Sitting with Harry Perez, Maria Isa’s father, before the show, conversation turned to the arts school where Isa started in music and theater, and how it was the support of the community that keep it going. “Because,” he said with his low growl, “the Bush years were hard years.” After eight years of the aggressively heterosexual Bush administration, the increasingly bitter state fight over marriage equality and the neutering effect of an economic recession, a work of love is necessary and transcendent.

This is especially true in the case of RENT, which celebrates homosexuality, drag queens, strippers, the will to live of those with AIDS and marginal power as a legitimate choice not because it is merely transgressive, but because re-affirms a heterodoxy of love. At this point, it would seem to be impossible for the institutionalized RENT to be politically transgressive, but as is sung in “La Vie Bohème” that “The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation,” and in the turmoil of the world of RENT and in America of the 21st century, the spirit of generous creation is still a passionate argument for freedom in the face of oppression. It is honest that all love is powerful and valid, love between one human and another, love of community, love of self, love of performance. RENT, and especially one with a cast so obviously close-knit as this Minneapolis performance, affirms that utopia is where and how you make it yourself and who you make it with. A show that can do that is worth, beyond your time and money, your love.

RENT runs at the Lab Theatre in the North Loop through February 21. Tickets are $46.50 (plus an online fee) and are selling out, so get them here.

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