In the near distant past, an epidemic gripped America; the epidemic was the AIDS/HIV tragedy, and the era was the 1990s. The late playwright Jonathan Larson fought the epidemic with a rock musical called “Rent.”
“Rent,” which began as a New York Theater workshop production, officially opened on Broadway in 1996 and ran for 12 years. The musical also garnered four Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama before being turned into a film featuring most of the original cast in 2005. Tragically, author Larson died unexpectedly of an undiagnosed aortic dissection the night before “Rent’s” premiere.
But fortunately for us, “Rent” lives on again. In continuing the celebration of its 15th anniversary season, the Metropolis in Arlington Heights has produced a well cast, well paced, and extremely well directed (Lauren Rawitz) production of “Rent.” Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Boheme, the musical centers on the personal and professional struggles of artists trying to make it in New York City’s East Village under the cruel shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Unfolding over a year’s time, the lynchpin characters are roommates Mark, a filmmaker (Dominic Rescigno), and HIV positive rock musician Roger (Tommy Malouf). Both actors are consistent, genuine and superbly talented actors and singers. From these two characters’ relationships, we are introduced to others: bisexual computer professor Tom Collins (Jordan Harris), former roommate and new landlord Benny (Derrick Mitchell), and 19-year-old exotic dancer/junkie Mimi (Molly-anne Nunn). These three also are skilled and beautifully adept in their roles, but, without a doubt, it is Will Wilhelm as the street percussionist drumming drag queen Angel who is the heart, soul and legacy of “Rent.” Let me say that Angel’s death is handled beautifully – both visually and sensitively – while the separated Roger and Mimi sing “Will I die without you?” downstage.
The supporting ensemble is composed of attractive, strong actors and singers who give their all vibrantly.
Sadly, there is no list of musical numbers or synopsis in the Metropolis’ program, so it is difficult to proclaim the exquisiteness of Larson’s songs and lyrics by name. True, you won’t walk away humming too many of “Rent’s” complex songs, but the quite recognizable and familiar “Seasons of Love” made it as a familiar pop song (“525 thousand 600 minutes”) and still is played in concerts and graduations everywhere. Listen carefully to the lyrics; thankfully all the characters are miked, and you’re constantly reminded of the heartbreaking and soaring lessons we ignore about the preciousness and fleetingness of life.
(“Forget regret or life is yours to miss.”)
Technical aspects of the Metropolis production equally are praiseworthy: the industrial loft and skylight of scenic designer Ashley Woods and prop designer Holly McCauley; the colorful range from yuppie to ragged costumes by designer Cathy Tantillo; the energetic and emotive choreography of Jen Cupani; and the vivid music (rock, soul, funk, opera, hiphop) of music director Alex Newkirk, who also doubles as an onstage musician with Michael Bulaw and Lior Schragg.
Despite its seriousness, there is some comic relief throughout “Rent,” largely thanks to Abby Vombrack’s character Maureen (a MOO-ving homeless protest) and interspersed lines, such as “Why Choose fear?...I’m a New Yorker!” Many social and cultural issues are addressed, from homelessness to addiction to homophobia, but unquestionably, the central theme is love.
“Rent” may be criticized for being a dated product of its time, but it is a time we should never forget; each of us matters, and we all carry baggage of some kind. Kudos to the Metropolis for producing such a vibrant, memorable production that is both vigorously entertaining as well as thought-provoking.
• Regina Belt-Daniels is a working actress and director who began her career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. Currently serving on the Raue Center for the Arts Board, she also is a lifetime member of TownSquare Players and a retired District 47 teacher.
WHEN: Through July 3
WHERE: Metropolis Performing Arts Center, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights
COST & INFO: The rock musical that defined a generation. With a running time of 2 hours, 20 minutes, the production contains adult content. Tickets: $38. Tickets and information: www.metropolisarts.com or 847-577-2121.