Pulitzer- and Tony-winning masterpiece “Rent” has returned to the National Theatre by popular demand with its 20th-anniversary tour production. The musical will run through Sunday, Nov. 17, and is the fourth production in the venue’s record-breaking 2019-2020 “Broadway at the National” season.
Jonathan Larson’s acclaimed rock opera “Rent” is loosely based on the classic Puccini opera “La Bohème,” but instead of 1890s Paris, Larson’s scene is set in the gritty back alleys of New York City at Christmastime in the early 1990s.
In the beginning, the two main protagonists are struggling to make ends meet. Mark Cohen (Cody Jenkins) is an aspiring filmmaker and Roger Davis (Coleman Cummings) is a former musician without a muse. They live in a slum apartment, burning items in a steel trash can for warmth. Mark’s girlfriend, Maureen Johnson (Kelsee Sweigard), left him for a woman named Joanne Jefferson (Samantha Mbolekwa), and Roger’s girlfriend April committed suicide by slitting her wrist after she discovered that both she and Roger had contracted AIDS.
To make matters even worse, Mark and Roger are about to be evicted by their former friend and roommate, Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III (Juan Luis Espinal), who recently purchased the building with the intention of converting it into a high-tech cyber arts studio.
Surrounded by death and despair, Mark and Roger set out to leave their individual legacies — Mark, by creating a documentary film, and Roger, by writing a timeless song.
Roger meets Mimi (Aiyana Smash), an exotic dancer with a drug addiction who becomes his inspiration to create. Even though there is instant chemistry between them, Roger pushes Mimi away, because of both her lifestyle and his own illness, which he cannot bring himself to disclose (“I Should Tell You”). Eventually, against his better judgment, Roger falls for her. Aiyana brings new life to Roger and the audience with her breathtaking performance and her clear, angelic tone.
Meanwhile, Maureen stages a protest over the planned cyber arts studio with a performance art piece (“Over the Moon”), comically executed by Sweigard.
Along the way, we meet Angel (Joshua Tavares), a loving drag queen, and Tom Collins (Shafiq Hicks), who soon becomes her partner. Angel finds Collins injured in the alleyway after he has been mugged and vows to care for him in the duet “I’ll Cover You.” The scenes between them are exciting with Tavares’ “herkie” cheerleading jumps and sincere with Hicks’ warm, soulful vocal range.
The stage consisted of a series of ladders, a “Moon,” a “Christmas tree, and platforms of varying levels, meant to represent the back alley of an apartment block. The cast keeps the story flowing with their high energy and rebellion, which at times does get overwhelmingly loud.
Despite some issues with the sound that made it frustratingly difficult to make out the lyrics, the cast had outstanding vocal talent. Standout tracks include “Over the Moon,” “La Vie Bohème” and, of course, fan favorite “Seasons of Love.” Many of the cast members are making their debuts on the national stage and they are superb.
Smash, Tavares and Sweigard each gave riveting performances. Both Rayla Garsk and Shafiq Hicks’ solo vocals in “Seasons of Love” are outstanding.
Over the course of 525,600 minutes, this story unfolds around the complicated and tragic relationships to convey a message of family, love, loss, understanding, and holding onto faith. Overall, it is easy to see why this show has an incredible following and how it will continue to fill the house over 20 years later, always ending in a standing ovation.
The show’s subject matter may not be suitable for audiences younger than 13. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to www.TheNationalDC.com.