'Rent' makes a feisty and spirited return to Minneapolis

By Tatiana Craine

To tell the truth, I never really understood what the fuss about “Rent” was all about. I was seven when it came out on Broadway, and I lived thousands of miles away from the bright lights of New York. Whenever the production went on tour and stopped in Minneapolis, theater-goers were crazy about the show. My friends would go to “Rent” and come back raving about how “great-awesome-fantastic” the show was. I had read about the show, listened to the soundtrack. It sounded good. But being a girl sequestered in suburbia, I felt like I had little connection to what I thought were a bunch of junkies in the East Village.I used to be a drama kid. One of those kids that gathered around the performing arts center after school. One of those kids that knew all the lines to a plethora of movies and would sit with friends, trying to outdo the others in a memorization battle. One of those kids who made the theater a second home. “Rent” made its way to Minneapolis a few times before this year’s national tour. Each time, I felt pretty indifferent about trying to see the show. Throughout high school, the drama department was all about “Wicked” and classic shows like “West Side Story” and “Singing in the Rain.” When my friends came back from “Rent”, they would sing praises about the show, but not the songs-too edgy.

I saw the movie adaptation of “Rent” after it came out. I had read that the movie wasn’t as good as the show, so I tried not to judge it too harshly. I found myself a little lost throughout the film, a little peeved by the musicality of it all. Granted, it was a musical film, but I was skeptical that these characters would burst out in song like they did. The character Roger’s roguish looks and angst-ridden soul kept my interest piqued. The fact that Idina Menzel was in the film reprising her breakout role as Maureen was a consolation for not being able to see the sold-out Wicked when it came to town. Overall, I genuinely liked the movie for what it was, but I couldn’t see myself being a die-hard “Rent” fan anytime soon.

After that, I stopped thinking about “Rent” until this year. Rachel Bernstein’s social change production on Macalester’s campus, “Rented Bodies,” got me back into the “Rent” frame of mind. I got to see “Rent” in a different light, a progressive play for its time with essentialized characters that were little like what their counterparts in the real world would probably be like.

Coincidentally, “Rent” was coming to town a few weeks after the “Rented Bodies” performance. Something about Bernstein’s production got me itching to go see the real thing. I got tickets and learned soon thereafter that some of the original cast members would also be in the show: Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp and Gwen Stewart.

Despite the heavy weight of stress on my shoulders the week “Rent” came to Minneapolis, I was anxious to see the show in all its glory. I sat in my seat, scribbling down notes about the colossal set, a metal-wrought art-installation with decorated with Christmas lights and old lawn chairs. I checked my watch a few times; the show wasn’t starting on time. I got a little nostalgic for my days in the high school drama department, running around backstage like a headless chicken trying to get costumes on and lines memorized before show time.

There was a split second of silence in the theater as Adam Pascal walked out onto the stage with his guitar and a pair of skin-tight plaid pants. Suddenly, an eruption of roaring screams and enthusiastic applause. Then, Anthony Rapp graced the stage with his character’s signature striped scarf-he was greeted by the audience with the same fervor. Rapp’s character Mark laid down the background of the show for the audience and the show was underway.

The first five minutes of the stage show outdid what emotions the movie conveyed in two hours. Immediately, the energy and chemistry between the cast members was evident. There was no box separating the audience from the actors, no screen to peer into, no pixels flashing over-rehearsed feelings. The songs were instantly more urgent sounding than I had ever heard them before. There was suddenly a magical quality to “Rent”-an organic flow of ideas and messages and dreams emanated from the stage. The audience couldn’t help but soak up the liveliness of the show and get involved.

In the middle of the show, I realized how much emotional involvement the audience had with each of the characters onstage. It’s easy to see a bit of yourself in each of them and it’s easy to feel like you’re one of the gang. The cast of “Rent” did an amazing job of conveying the chemistry that they share offstage. During the opening scenes, and throughout the rest of the show, Rapp and Pascal have a connection that is so powerful that it appears as if they haven’t skipped a beat between their opening days in “Rent” in 1996. The rest of the cast blends in well with Rapp and Pascal, working well together and doing what they do best.

Throughout the night, the cast’s performance did not wane-they performed with the same vigor that they did when they walked onto the stage. In turn, the audience’s enthusiasm remained high as ever for the actors, the story and the songs.

Though “Rent” was written over a decade ago, Jonathan Larson’s messages still resonate fully today. The blunt manner of the show lends itself to sending out the significance of the stories “Rent” tells. The characters are developed well, but they each fit a different societal mold that tends to tokenize them. The songs in “Rent” are plentiful, filled with simple messages and lines that easily pierce audience hearts, resonating deep without the trouble of having to decipher hidden meaning. Lastly, the story is simple enough: some friends in the East Village are trying to pay the bills, cope with debilitating drug habits and live another day with HIV or AIDS. Despite the show’s straightforwardness, it manages to open the audience’s eyes without being overpowering. Audiences are allowed to look past the unfortunate situations these characters are in and instead they see timeless themes about love, friendship, loss and life.