“Rent” is now of legal age, and it’s rocking out to celebrate.
Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking, Pulitzer-winning musical blew open the doors of musical theater in April 1996 and became a generation-defining show — a “Hair” for Gen-Xers and millennials. Now its 20th anniversary tour, which finally rolled into Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theatre on Tuesday for a weeklong run, demonstrates what all the fuss was about and why “Rent” retains its relevance, even if parts of it seem dated.
Like Puccini’s landmark opera “La Bohème” that inspired it, Larson’s musical is about a community of artists who forge a family in the crucible of struggle.
Musician Roger (Kaleb Wells), filmmaker Mark (Danny Harris Kornfeld) and performance artist Maureen (Katie LaMark) are among those scrambling to pay their rent in Manhattan’s rundown Alphabet City neighborhood.
They and their friends also face a tangle of emotions around love and life-or-death issues. Tom (Aaron Harrington), a teacher, and Angel (David Merino), a drag queen, are dealing with AIDS. Mimi (Skyler Volpe), an exotic dancer, is also HIV-positive and battles addiction.
Like Tony Kushner’s 1991 “Angels in America,” “Rent” features same-sex couples as normative, a breakthrough in its day. The music also spoke to the times, with quick-changing, genre-hopping songs that seem like they were written for kids with attention deficit — or a generation accustomed to listening to music on shuffle play.
In some ways, the show seems quaint. When is the last time you used a public telephone, let alone one with a long cord? And some of the things that made “Rent” urgent in 1996 no longer are pressing public issues. AIDS is not the scary death sentence that it once seemed. Drug addiction, however, remains very pertinent in a nation confronting an opioid epidemic and a rise in heroin use.
However, all of that takes second fiddle to the music and performances in this energetic revival, which re-creates Michael Greif’s original direction.
The show throbs with energy, verve and keening emotion, sometimes feeling like a rock concert. The cast is enthusiastic and capable, with showstopping moments from Merino, whose Angel lights up the stage like the Christmas costume he sports, and Volpe, whose dancing is electric.
The evergreen message in “Rent” is that hope and joy can conquer fear and loathing, as embodied by the landlord and by police. It is a show that celebrates a year in the life of these artists, and it resonates, showing us that hearts can triumph, even over death, in this “season of love.”