The McCain Performance Series welcomed the 20th Anniversary tour of “Rent” to a packed house Monday evening.
“Rent” debuted in 1996, which according to my math, puts us in the fourth year of the “20th Anniversary Tour.” The musical is one of the most decorated in Broadway history, having won the Tony for best musical, the Pulitzer Prize for drama and boasting a 12-year run on Broadway — one of the longest-running shows in history.
The plot centers on two roommates living in a run-down building in Manhattan’s East Village. Their former roommate, now the building’s owner, is looking to evict the pair along with the the impoverished young artists who inhabit the building and the empty lot next door. Themes include the cruelty of capitalism, the importance of artistic expression and the devastation of AIDS.
As is typical in a musical, the plot matters very little. The real star is the music, and as expected from a show with Rent’s pedigree, it’s fantastic throughout. There were several outstanding performances, including Ayana Smash’s fierce portrayal of Mimi and Joshua Tavares’ animated turn as Angel the drag queen.
The score, set design and costumes were also fantastic — all standard for a national touring production.
Unfortunately, as I realized about halfway through the first act, I don’t really like musicals.
I want to. I love music. I love theater. I should love musicals, especially rock musicals as competently produced as Monday night’s production of “Rent,” but I couldn’t really lock in aside from a few show-stopping numbers.
(Full disclosure: I was a last-minute substitute for The Mercury’s regular arts critic.)
I realize sending someone who’s not a big fan of musicals to review one is a bit like sending my mom to review a Metallica concert, but there it is.
Fortunately, the audience at McCain did not share my uncultured taste. The reception was rapturous — huge applause after most songs and an enthusiastic standing ovation at the end. Patrons I spoke to loved the show, and most were seeing it for the second or third time.
I got the impression that “Rent” holds a very special place in a lot of hearts. One couple had seen the Broadway version on their honeymoon and said the performance was just as riveting 15 years later. A woman seated near me was in “Rent” in high school and said she would have a difficult time not singing along for the entire show.
Even a non-believer like me can recognize the power of certain numbers. The most famous is undoubtedly “Seasons of Love,” (the “525,600 minutes” song). It opens the second act and functions as a refrain throughout, referencing the number of minutes in a year.
Pleasing people who already love “Rent” is shooting fish in a barrel. To get a genuine emotional response from someone like me, who has no personal history with the show and who doesn’t really understand most of what’s happening — that’s an impressive feat.