Rent opened the new series “SunTrust Broadway Series” at Durham’s latest theatrical venue, the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC). The Broadway Tour of this performance includes the two men who opened the show on Broadway, Adam Pascal as Roger Davis and Anthony Rapp as his roommate, Mark Cohen. The two lead a powerhouse of a cast through a two-and-a-half hour extravaganza of music, dance, and theater, as this update of the opera La Bohème blasts off the stage and sears itself into your consciousness.
The word “raw” comes to mind when viewing the set or anything else about this work. It is the early 1990s in New York City, and AIDS and AZT are a part of the landscape. Fifteen young artists are at work in Alphabet City, but drugs and AIDS and hunger and poverty form the backdrop. Stage right, the band is ensconced in a loft; stage left, a huge articulated metal construct forms a tree, an alley, an array of Christmas lights, and a visual image of the cacophony of the city. This is the big city, in a set designed by Paul Clay; and alleys and bricks are just about all these denizens will ever know.
Pascal and Rapp lead off with the title song in a high-powered duet that sets the tone for the show. The relationships come fast and thick; if you have an idea of them beforehand, you fare better. First comes Benny, or Benjamin Coffin III (Jacques C. Smith), who was once a roommate of Roger and Mark, but is now their landlord. He has also dated a young woman named Mimi (Lexi Lawson), who soon comes to meet Roger in a sweet duet titled “Light My Candle.”
Mark, on the other hand, has been dating a performance artist named Maureen (Nicolette Hart), who is now having a lesbian affair with Joanne (Haneefah Wood), who is also acting as her manager. Also a once-roommate of the guys is Tom Collins (Michael McElroy), who has just been adopted by and endeared to a young transvestite named Angel (Justin Johnston).
These are the main characters; but a cast of seven more, including Gwen Stewart, another original Broadway cast member, continue to knock us dead with energy and power. Leads there may be, but Rent runs far beyond its characters. Music, dance, theater, and language all combine to blow the audience away, time after time.
After Mimi and Roger meet, she turns it all loose on the crowd with a sexy “Take Me Out” that would have enervated any other actress. Hot dance and stunning lyrics make this a showstopper. The entire company follows in a quartet of tunes that move the story along, starting with Mimi and Roger in “Another Day” and lighting the streets with “Will I?/On the Street” and closing with Collins’ pipe dream of getting out, “Santa Fe.” Act I concludes with the street performance of Maureen, “Over the Moon,” and wraps up with “La Vie Bohème” as an Act I zinger!
Director Michael Greif divides the play by showing us Christmas in Act I, and by taking us through a year in the life in Act II. “Seasons of Love” is a lovely ballad sung in lineup by all 15 cast members, marking a stark contrast to the raw power of Act I.
Mimi and Roger fight through the year (“Without You”), as do Joanne and Maureen (“Take Me or Leave Me”). Roger leaves, changes his mind, returns, and finally can write the one song he’s been trying to write the whole show, “Your Eyes.” It combines with the finale to leave us standing and cheering.
Rent is not for the timid. There are far too many adult themes, and the music is loud and mean. But this is a fantastic show and a fitting opener for the DPAC’s new SunTrust Broadway Series. The music is a stunning score, and every voice is of outstanding caliber, high velocity, and beautifully controlled. If you are looking for Broadway in the Triangle, I doubt you will do any better anywhere than with Rent.