Jonathan Larson's cult-favorite musical gets a rousing production on Staten Island.
As Rent approaches the 20th anniversary of its off-Broadway and Broadway premieres, Jonathan Larson's seminal work is popping up in theaters around the city. To get a jumpstart on the upcoming milestone, "Rentheads" will want to make their way to Staten Island's Snug Harbor Cultural Center for a blazingly energetic, wonderfully performed staging of the Tony-winning musical, produced by Harbor Lights Theater Company. With an extraordinarily talented cast of 15 young performers, and dynamic direction and choreography by Alex Perez, this Rent will likely have you humming "five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes" all the way home.
Larson based his musical loosely on Giacomo Puccini's opera La Bohème, updating the action to 1989 in New York City. In a graffiti-strewn building (detailed set by Carl Tallent), we meet denizens of New York's Alphabet City living la vie Bohème as the AIDS epidemic sweeps through the streets of the Lower East Side. At the center of the story are two hard-up roommates, budding videographer Mark (Nick DeVito) and HIV-positive musician Roger (Travis Artz), who are trying to keep warm on Christmas eve.
Mark and Roger's former friend Benny (Denzel Edmondson) offers to forgive the rent they owe if they'll break up a protest (Benny wants to get rid of some homeless people to build a "cyber arts studio"). Meanwhile, Tom Collins (Monté J. Howell), an HIV-positive friend of Mark and Roger, falls in love with drag queen Angel (Michael J. Mainwaring), who's also positive. Roger's relationship with neighbor Mimi (Emily Jeanne Phillips) becomes complicated by her drug addiction. These and other couples, including the lawyer Joanne (Madeline Fansler) and performance artist Maureen (Zuri Washington), must negotiate a world ravaged by drugs, disease, and greed while questioning whether love is really enough to hold their lives together.
Harbor Lights has culled talented actors for this production, and Perez puts them to work with demanding dance routines and fast-paced action (clocking in with a running time of two hours, 40 minutes), resulting in several standout numbers. Phillips and Artz show endearing chemistry and a sweet tenderness in "Light My Candle," while DeVito and Fansler add an appropriate humor to "Tango: Maureen." DeVito, though his performance is sometimes subdued, pulls out the stops with the rest of the cast in "La Vie Bohème," and Washington gets the crowd laughing with Maureen's wacky performance-art number, "Over the Moon."
Particularly notable are Mainwaring's Angel, who is in charge of the stage in every scene he's in. From the exuberant "Today 4 U," in which Angel enters in a shapely Santa Claus outfit (well-chosen, grungy costumes by Kurt Alger) and drums maniacally on a table while twirling like a Christmas tornado to the nightmarish "Contact" scene (dramatic red lighting here by Kia Rogers), Mainwaring delivers pitch-perfect energy at every turn. As Angel's boyfriend, Howell creates a loving chemistry with Mainwaring that is especially felt in Howell's tear-inducing reprise of "I'll Cover You." Also among the show's most memorable moments is Gavyn Pickens' brilliant solo in "Seasons of Love." Together with fellow ensemble member Philip Bolton, these scenes shine and will have audiences checking their programs to take note of actors' names.
The additional ensemble members also deliver outstanding performances. The production's sound could use a little work to allow the actors to be heard as clearly as they should, and the first-rate onstage band also sometimes overwhelms the vocals in the bigger numbers. Those minor quibbles aside, Harbor Light's Rent keeps Larson's candle burning brightly.