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“Timeless” is an adjective often used to describe classic 20th century musicals like Oklahoma!, West Side Story, and My Fair Lady. The implication being that these shows tell stories that still resonate today, and they do.
But there is calling a musical “timeless,” and then there is mounting a production of Rent in 2021. A show about surviving a pandemic while housing costs rise, arts organizations close, and “Cyberland” disconnects humanity? Yeeouch! This year, Rent is either too on the nose, or absolutely perfect holiday entertainment.
Signature Theatre hopes you’ll think it’s the latter. The kinetic, high energy production of Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical runs through Jan. 2 and takes a holiday slot previously occupied by some of the Arlington theater’s best productions in recent memory, including A Chorus Line, Billy Elliot, and West Side Story.
If this production of Rent falls a bit short of those pre-pandemic hits, it’s not for lack of effort to reimagine it for Signature’s unique black box space. Because Rent ran on Broadway for 12 years, and has toured frequently ever since, it’s rare for regional theaters to receive rights to mount their own productions. (The 25th Anniversary Farewell tour visits the National Theatre in March.) On Netflix, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film tick… tick… BOOM, adapted from Larson’s one-man “rock monologue,” has turned this fall into a season of love for the musical theater genius who died of an aortic aneurysm at age 35, hours before Rent’s off-Broadway previews began.
For the non-Rentheads out there, Larson’s musical is based on Puccini’s 1896 opera La Boheme. Fast forward a century or so, and the coterie of starving artists lives in New York City’s East Village, not Paris, and instead of coughing from consumption, characters swallow their AIDS medication and pray there’s still time to live and create “before the virus takes hold,” as the recently diagnosed Roger, played by Vincent Kempski, sings.
At Signature, Kempski strums his guitar and sings this grim line on a stage that bisects the black box space on a diagonal. As in director Michael Grief’s original production, three tables are wheeled on and off stage, but this time, Signature Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner adds a few more elaborate set pieces, and drapes protest signs from the second tier. The floor isn’t actually dirty, but concert flyers are pasted to the stage, and you may expect to find pre-Giuliani trash under your seat.
Signature populates its faux ’90s New York with several local musical theater talents, including Katie Mariko Murray as the philandering performance artist Maureen, a role that made Idina Menzel famous two decades before she belted “Let It Go.” The entire first act is set on Christmas Eve, and culminates with Maureen protesting near a closed performance space slated for redevelopment into a condo building/tech start-up called Cyberarts. Maureen’s ballad can be presented as indulgent silliness, as it was when Vanessa Hudgens sang “Over the Moon” in the 2019 televised production. Signature presents her act as brilliant camp, and Murray gyrates into deep plies while her pliant soprano jumps octaves.
Both Murray and Arianna Rosario, who stars as the AIDS-stricken addict Mimi, bring more lyrical voices to the tables than the original Rent cast, which is smart: They’re singing as themselves rather then trying to mimic the belty growls of Menzel and Daphne Rubin-Vega. Rosario plays the Cat Scratch Club dancer as lithe, limber, and game for anything as soon as she knocks on the door looking for a match to light her candle. The power has gone out in a building that’s home to Mimi and other low-income artists like aspiring filmmaker Mark, played by Jake Loewenthal, and Roger, the rock band frontman.
Kempski was terrific as John Wilkes Booth in Signature’s 2019 Assassins, and fine as Al in Chorus Line. We know he can emote, and we know he can move, yet his Roger is like Kurt Cobain on Prozac—too wooden to garner any sympathy. The musical should peak midway through Act 2, when Mark and Roger nearly scream “What You Own,” an angst-ridden anthem that both embraces life and condemns all that’s wrong with the world. Loewenthal and Kempski don’t have the charisma to pull it off.
To be fair, their bar is set high because Rickey Tripp’s choreography is so lively, and the supporting characters around them are so vibrant. Josh A. Dawson, in the role of philosophy professor Tom Collins, has the voice of a baritone angel and divine dance moves. And as Angel, the busking percussionist who rescues Tom from robbers and becomes the lover to cover him “with 1,000 kisses,” David Merino brings Rockette-like kicks and more holiday joy than the Macy’s Parade. Costume designer Erik Teague, better known locally for his goth-like garb at Synetic, decked out the entire cast in vintage-looking 90s wear, but allows Merino to stand out in a red Christmas dress with a train that puts Holiday Barbie to shame.
On the night I attended, the musical suffered from audio issues, some technical, some performative. The five-piece band is split up into three clusters around the theater, and some instruments are louder than others, throwing the sound off balance depending on where you sit. The ensemble failed to start a few choruses on the downbeat and headset microphones sometimes got out-of-whack.
These issues may resolve as Rent continues its run. One constant is the pandemic, and theater patrons come in knowing the musical is no break from chatter about worrisome variants and antiviral pills. “La Vie Boheme,” the Act 1 closer, celebrates avant guard ingenuity, with shout outs to 20th century giants like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Susan Sontag, who all lived through the AIDS crisis. Like AIDS, the coronavirus has taken its toll on artists, and there’s no better reminder that a career in the field is fragile than seeing the name Jenelle Figgins listed in the program as Rent’s assistant choreographer.
Prior to the pandemic, Figgins was a member of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, and one of few Black dancers from D.C. performing with a professional ballet troupe. The company dissolved in March, citing financial pressures of the pandemic. Tripp offered the Duke Ellington School for the Arts alumna a chance to help choreograph Rent, and Figgins embraced the opportunity. Who knows what the future holds for her, and every other artist involved in Rent? What they do know is to keep repeating the timeless closing refrain: “No other path. No other way. No day but today.”
Rent, directed by Matthew Gardiner, runs through Jan. 2 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. sigtheatre.org. $40–$108.