Cherish the moment and stay hopeful: Rent is just as relevant 20 years later

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Rent | Broadway Across Canada | Queen Elizabeth Theatre | September 17 – 22, 2019

How do you measure a year? How do you measure a life? Rent’s message that our lives should be measured in love is just as powerful now as it was over twenty years ago when it premiered in 1996. Jonathan Larson’s re-imagining of Puccini’s La Bohème is full of rousing songs and unforgettable lyrics. From the opening notes of “Rent” and the line “How do you document real life when real life’s getting more like fiction each day?” to the iconic “Seasons of Love” and the triumphant finale, this production was a wonderful celebration of love, friendship, and hope prevailing over fear.

In a cold, rundown loft in New York City, seven artists and friends struggle to make ends meet and find their way without selling out. Mark (Cody Jenkins), a documentary filmmaker, and Roger (Coleman Cummings), a musician, are best friends and roommates who have been betrayed by their former friend, Benny. He bought their building and plans to sell it to developers, evict Mark and Roger, and displace the homeless people living in the empty lot next door.

The group’s love lives are also a bit complicated: Collins (Mark and Roger’s ex-roommate) and Angel (a drag queen) are an item, while Mimi (Benny’s ex-girlfriend) is now dating Roger. Benny has since married into a wealthy family, and Maureen (Mark’s ex) is now with Joanne. Maureen stages a protest on Christmas Eve, and the war between Benny and the others continues.

An imposing mountain of scrap steel and bikes covered in Christmas lights is a significant piece of the set by Paul Clay, while stairs coming down from a catwalk at the back of the stage are used to enhance choreography and create powerful entrances. Costumes by Angela Wendt are ’90s-inspired, bright, and colourful. A payphone and handheld analogue video camera remind us what decade we’re in.

There were many standout numbers, but Roger’s “One Song Glory” was powerful as he sings about finding “one song before the virus takes hold.” The finite time we have in our lives comes up many times, most powerfully in “Seasons of Love” with the iconic lyrics, “Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes…”
With the cast lined up along the front of the stage, belting it out into the crowd, many were tapping their toes and singing along.

In “Santa Fe,” Collins dreams about opening up a restaurant in “sunny Santa Fe” which reminded me of Jack Kelly in Newsies also singing about escaping to the idyllic city where everything would be better. It seems there is a nod to Newsies in Rent, whether it was intentional or not, which I had never noticed before.

There are many tender moments that bring a tear to the eye between Angel and Collins, and between Mimi and Roger. Mimi and Angel are both vulnerable and suffering: Angel from AIDS and Mimi from addiction. For all the sadness and grief, there is also an equal amount of joy and hope with La Vie Boheme celebrating art, creativity and all that is outside of the mainstream.     

The entire cast was stunning. The biggest star of the show, however, has to be Joshua Tavares as Angel. He was fabulous, and when Angel is gone, we’re all reminded to appreciate the moment by the line “There’s only us; there’s only this.”

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