When Rent opened off-Broadway in February 1996, it rocked the theater world and won instant acclaim. The death of 35-year-old composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson from an aortic aneurysm just before the show’s opening certainly added to the show’s impact, but the musical’s stark depiction of life and death in New York City in the late 1980s stands on its own.
Based on Puccini’s La Bohème, Rent—now getting an excellent production complements of College of the Desert—chronicles one year in the life of a group of poor artists living in the East Village of Manhattan. Aspiring film-maker Mark (Shafik Wahab) searches for professional recognition, while his HIV-positive songwriter-roommate, Roger (Christian Quevedo), longs to pen a hit tune before succumbing to his illness (“One Song Glory”). Soon, Roger meets Mimi (Allegra Angelo), also HIV-positive, and the two fall in love after she seduces him (“Light My Candle”).
Mark is pining for his ex-lover, Maureen (Meagan Van Dyke), a highly sexed performance artist who has left him for a woman, Joanne (Alisha Bates). Mark and Joanne sing of their mutual obsession with Maureen in “Tango: Maureen.”
Computer whiz Tom Collins (Anthony Martinez) falls for Angel (Aaron Anzaldua), an adorable transvestite inflicted with AIDS. Rounding out the principal cast is Benny (Dion Khan), Mark and Roger’s former roommate and current landlord, who is pressuring them for past-due rent.
The score is terrific, but certain numbers really stand out, including Mimi’s steamy “Out Tonight,” the tender Tom/Angel duet “I’ll Cover You,” and the best-known tune in the show—“Seasons of Love.”
I cannot say enough great things about this cast: The leads are all outstanding. I would not be at all surprised to see some of their names in lights on Broadway down the road. However, the glue that holds the show together is Wahab as Mark. His stage presence, strong voice and acting chops are perfectly suited to the role. As the tragic lovers Roger and Mimi, Quevedo and Angelo are marvelous. Their voices are terrific, and both dig down deep to bring true emotion to the stage. Their passion is palpable; both are guaranteed to bring a tear to your eye at some point.
With a cast this strong, it’s hard to do, but Anzaldua nearly steals the show as the doomed Angel. His slight build and outrageous costumes complement his superb performance. He is clearly having a blast onstage … but when the darkness sets in, the audience wants to wrap him in our arms and comfort him.
As Angel’s lover Tom, Martinez is stupendous. When he reprises “I’ll Cover You” after losing Angel, his voice soars up to the rafters. I defy any audience member with a pulse not to have chills after hearing that number.
Khan’s Benny is also fantastic. He handles his featured song “You’ll See” with great aplomb.
The chemistry between Van Dyke and Bates as lesbian lovers Maureen and Joanne is sizzling. Even women who’ve never had the slightest interest in switching teams might consider it after their erotic duet “Take Me or Leave Me.” Van Dyke has a huge future ahead of her in musical theater.
The members of the ensemble hold their own with the principals—there is not a weak link.
A lot goes on in this show—there’s a large cast, a band onstage, lots of dancing, heavy emotion, sexual themes—all of which require a director with great skill. Mark Almy has that skill; everything flows just as it should. Major kudos also go to musical director Scott Smith and choreographer Shea New. Joseph Layne’s set and lighting, and Jack Ramoran’s sound, are right on the money, as are the costumes (Rick Doerfler, Kathy Smith, Courtney Ohnstad).
The only flaw in this production is an occasional volume imbalance between the band (the excellent Scott Smith, Anthony Arizaga, Mikael Jacobson and Brad Vaughn) and the singers. There are times when the lyrics are difficult to understand—partly because the band’s a bit too loud, and partly because the singers’ diction is a bit unclear. A slight adjustment in the musicians’ volume would make a big difference.
The show is long—about 2 1/2 hours, but well worth it.
This was the first time I have seen a production of Rent. It won’t be my last.
College of the Desert’s Rent will be performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 3 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 29, at the Pollock Theatre on the COD campus, 43500 Monterey Ave., in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 for general admission, and $20 for students. The run time is 2 1/2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-773-2574, or visit collegeofthedesert.ticketleap.com.