For composer, lyricist, and librettist Jonathan Larson's award-winning rock musical Rent, the third time around was the best. Having appeared twice before in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium for multiple performances as part of Broadway Series South, Rent finally played a single sold-out performance on Jan. 24 in Duke University's Page Auditorium as part of Broadway at Duke.
Rent's high-octane production numbers, such as the title tune, "La Vie Bohème/I Should Tell You" and "Seasons of Love," deserved and received hearty applause. So did costume designer Angela Wendt's colorful contemporary outfits and the superb industrial-loft set designed by Paul Clay (and adapted for the current tour by Matthew E. Maraffi) and provocative lighting by lighting designer Blake Burba.
Although the management handed out ear plugs at the door, they proved unnecessary. The current OnTour, LLC presentation of Rent occasionally rattled the rafters, but it was not as loud as the previous touring productions. Moreover, this high-energy production of Rent demonstrates why this exuberant rock musical, inspired by Puccini's tragic opera La Bohème, won the 1996 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score and the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Director Michael Greif's snappy staging, choreographer Marlies Yearby's dynamic dance routines, and the outstanding musical accompaniment provided by conductor David Pepin (keyboards), assistant conductor Kristy L. Nicholson (keyboards), Joe Parker (guitar), Paul Reich (bass), and Jamie Podojil (drums) really rocked Page Auditorium.
This frequently amusing but ultimately poignant tale of starving artists squatting in dilapidated buildings in New York City and partying like its 1999 stars Ashton Holmes as documentary filmmaker Mark Cohen; Kevin Spencer as his depressed HIV+ roommate, guitarist Roger Davis; Bruce Wilson, Jr. as their gay philosopher friend Tom Collins; Justin Rodriguez as Collins' sassy soul mate, drag queen Angel Schunard; and Krystal L. Washington as beautiful drug-addicted club dancer Mimi Marquez, who takes a shine to Roger but has a hard time getting to first base with him.
All of the major performers gave passionate high-decibel performances; but Rebecca A. Pace, substituting for Cassie Levy, stole the show with her outrageous antics as Mark's former girlfriend, wild and crazy performance artist Maureen Johnson, who dumped the nebbish documentarian for a red-hot romance with poverty lawyer and political activist Joanne Jefferson (Bridget Anne Mohammed).
Also good were Matthew S. Morgan as Mark and Roger's former friend and current landlord Benjamin Coffin, III; and Erin Greiner, substituting for Rebecca Pace, as Mark's increasingly concerned mother.
Earl R. Perkins, Jr. and Sahirah Johnson as Joanne's politically active parents and others; Brian Ashton Miller as Gordon and others; DJ Gregory as Steve and others; Damien Deshaun Smith as Paul and others; and Veronica Arriola as Alexi Darling and others complete this young and impressive multitalented ensemble of rising Broadway stars, who can sing and dance and deliver a punchline with equal aplomb.