Why aren’t there more productions this time of year, one wonders, of Jonathan Larson’s multiple Tony Award, Drama Desk and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent? It’s a holiday play, after all, with major scenes transpiring on Christmas Eve and New Year’s. It may not be family-friendly, but it’s certainly a refreshing change from endless repeats of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker.
Though it was originally inspired by an Italian opera composed in 1896 and set in the Latin Quarter of Paris, Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, Rent is a piece of theater very much tied to a particular place and time nearly a century later: New York City’s Lower East Side in the late 1980s/early 1990s. It was a time when the worst of the AIDS epidemic had crested and an effective treatment, AZT, had finally become available; but many people were still dying from the disease. Most of the main characters in Rent are HIV-positive young artists, and their tenuous health status instills a sense of fatalism that they endeavor to transcend by living “La Vie Bohème” to its fullest.
They’re also mostly destitute, squatting in unheated buildings threatened by gentrification. The housing-crisis issue certainly still resonates today, but in other respects, revivals of Rent these days have to grapple with the fact that some of its tropes may no longer seem relatable to younger audiences, who may have no clue what AZT even stands for. True, we’ve had our own pandemic that killed more than a million Americans, and it didn’t target LGBTQ people or heroin addicts. All the same, there are themes in this play that remain perennial and universal, and there are ways to present it that make the material feel fresh and relevant.
This month’s new Centerstage production of Rent at the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck – created with help from Jonathan Burkhart, Larson’s onetime roommate who partially inspired the play’s indie-filmmaker character Mark – has addressed this time gap admirably. For one thing, the cast is diverse and inclusive in nearly every way imaginable. While the original featured several major LGBTQ characters, in this version, hardly anyone presents as plain-vanilla cis/het. Moreover, many roles who were white in the original are now filled by actors of color. Perhaps most radical of all, the casting has embraced body positivity for an unconventionally diverse physical spectrum of actors. You’ll find no uniform Broadway “prettiness” dominant here.
Even the character of Mimi – wasting away from consumption in La Bohème, and a junkie rapidly losing weight in the original play – is performed by a woman of substantial girth, Samantha Vega. She totally sells the part, too, sexy as all get-out in skin-tight leatherette leggings and a precariously laced bustier. Amongst a supremely talented cast across the board, Vega is the standout vocalist, breaking our hearts as she seduces first the surly punk guitarist Roger (P. J. Kraus), who just wants to write one great song before he dies, and then the entire audience in songs including “Light My Candle,” “Another Day” and “I Should Tell You.”
Ory Lopez is bouncy and engaging as the play’s main point-of-view character, Roger’s roommate Mark. Talent Davis is also terrific as Collins, a spunky anarchist philosophy professor who’s one of the few gainfully employed characters. Cheyenne See is in fine voice as the singer/activist Maureen, who has recently dumped Mark and performs “Over the Moon,” a ridiculously pretentious, show-stopping number based on the nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle,” at a street demonstration in support of a homeless encampment.
But the star of this production by a long shot is Peter Kiewra as Angel, the drag performer who inspires everyone in this little community of the downtrodden to keep going yet one more day. Arguably the most dated element of this show is the fact that the “Kill your gays” trope has gone well out of fashion in the theater world, and the physically frail (but vividly rambunctious) Angel is clearly doomed from the get-go. Not only is their case of AIDS quite advanced, but they’re simply too pure and good a human to survive in such a harsh, unforgiving urban environment. The stage lights up with joy every time Kiewra has a scene. It’s a performance that by itself well-justifies the $27 price of a ticket to this show.
Directed and choreographed by Tamara Cacchione, the Centerstage Productions edition of Rent by Jonathan Larson runs through January 29, with performances beginning at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets can be ordered online at www.centerforperformingarts.org/whats-playing. Masks are no longer required, but strongly encouraged for audience members. For more information, call (845) 876-3080. The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck is located at 661 Route 308, about three miles east of downtown Rhinebeck