Review: New Line Theatre Pays The 'Rent'

 In Culture

When the national tour of “Rent” played at the Fox in the early 2000s, it was, for me, a huge letdown. This was, after all, a musical about my earlier life as an artist, trying to get by in NYC. That big, slick production seemed like little more than a pity party to me, with songs about not being able to pay the rent or the heat being shut off.

They may have been professional actors, but the characters were amateur New Yorkers. The production lost me in the first five minutes and never got me back. With the current local production of “Rent,” the question was could New Line Theatre show me something the national tour hadn’t? The answer came last Saturday night: Yes. Yes, they could.

Jeremy Hyatt (on table) and cast in Rent Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Jeremy Hyatt (on table) and cast in “Rent”
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

My first tip-off that this production was going to be about more than “struggling artist angst” came before the show even started, thanks to resident scenic designer Rob Lippert. A little yellow man graffitied on a door of the set is a reference and homage to Keith Haring, an artist who was birthed by the New York City street culture of the 1980s by conceptualizing birth, death, sexuality and war through his art—the very themes explored in Jonathon Larson’s, “Rent,” not war against other nations but against the “system,” or even life itself.

In between the times when the subway system removed poster advertizements and before they put up the next one, there would be a blank white space, framed by tile work. Haring filled these spaces with his little people. You’d see them everywhere. Haring died of complications due to AIDs (HIV looms large in the play), and today his work has sold for as much as $2.5 million and is considered undervalued at that. It quite changed the experience to think that “Rent” is the story of those little people in Haring’s work; they live, they breathe, they struggle, and yes, they sometimes can’t pay the rent.

Robert Lee Davis III, Melissa Harris, and Kevin Corpuz in Rent Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Robert Lee Davis III, Melissa Harris, and Kevin Corpuz in “Rent”
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Undoubtedly, the intimacy of a small production helps to make the story more sincere, but it’s more than that. Director Scott Miller has removed sole focus on a handful of characters to focus on the cast as a whole, and this helps to view the work as a singular organism, with a singular meaning and purpose. Even the music seemed better, with the excellent voices and performances by the cast and the New Line band under the direction of Justin Smolik, two things you can always count on at New Line.

The cast does a fine job and there are several notable performances. Anna Skidis as club dancer Mimi disintegrates before our eyes, the dark circles around her eyes getting progressively deeper. She moves easily from the driving Rock ‘n’ Roll number, “Out Tonight,” to the tender duet, “Without You,” paired with Evan Fornachon as central bohemian Roger. The pair also perform the charming number, “Light My Candle.” Luke Steingruby’s drag queen Angel brings a street charm to the role, and sings the terrific and tender love song “I’ll Cover You,” with Marshall Jennings. Jeremy Hyatt as filmmaker wannabe Mark Cohen combines with Cody LaShea for “Tango: Maureen,” wonderfully choreographed by Robin Berger.

Anna Skidis and Evan Fornachon in Rent by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Anna Skidis and Evan Fornachon in “Rent” by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Sarah Porter’s quintessential performance art piece, “Over the Moon,” finally puts the cap on the “performance art” experiment forever, so it can be laid to rest. There were many other notable performances in this production, which is chock-full of them, but only so many artists can fit in an alphabet city studio apartment. Kudos to them.

The technical aspects are right on as well, especially Sarah Porter and Marcie Wiegert’s costumes, Rob Lippert’s set and lights, and Kerrie Mondy’s sound. Everything works together throughout the entire production, top to bottom, for a powerhouse evening of theater. Good work by the seven scenic painters and graffiti artists as well, especially whoever put the yellow man on the door.

“Rent” continues at New Line Theatre through March 29. For tickets and information, visit the New Line website.

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