Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of ‘Rent’ at the Hobby Center
Written by Davis Mendoza Darusman on August 7, 2019
“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.”
In a world full of Fred Astaires, the ground-breaking 1996 musical RENT features a strong lineup of singing Fred Astaires and high-heeled Ginger Rogerses, whose talents were on full display in the Hobby Center for the 20th Anniversary North American Tour of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning masterpiece.
Tackling heavy topics like AIDS in the mid-90’s, homelessness, gentrification, drug addiction and more, the national touring production of Johnathan Larson’s magnum opus takes on taboo with both grit and grace as a rock opera that still continues to move audiences after two decades.
Despite several instances where the vocals sound muddied and lyrics become unintelligible, audiences can’t help but invest their emotions into each character in the ensemble cast – partially due to the intricate relationship dynamics that many audience members can relate to in spite of the uniquely dark situations the characters find themselves in.
For the turbulent on-again/off-again couples in the crowd, the vivacious prima donna Maureen Johnson, played by Kelsee Sweigard, channeled Idina Menzel’s original powerhouse vocals as she serenaded her mistreated-turned-Ms. Diva girlfriend Joanne Jefferson, played by Samantha Mbolekwa; for the lovey dovey couples in the house, Joshua Tavares’ portrayal of the iconic drag queen Angel had the character moving mountains for their star-crossed lover Tom Collins, played by Shafiq Hicks; for the passionate yet always instigating couples in the audience, the ever-so sexy dancer Mimi Marquez, performed by Aiyana Smash, scandalously seduced audiences as well as character Roger Davis, portrayed by Coleman Cummings.
Serving as the story’s narrator through the form of videography, Mark Cohen is performed by Texas-native Cody Jenkins in his second year of playing the role. As he follows the struggles of others all while struggling on his own, Jenkins’ rendition provides an air of artistic isolation as he captures the world around him as it goes up in flames – largely due to the greedy landlord Benny Coffin, notably played by Juan Luis Espinal who took on the role in Spanish in his home country of the Dominican Republic.
The show heavily follows the motif of finding ones creative voice, whether through Mark’s camera lens, Roger’s guitar, or any stage Maureen finds herself on; in fact, the biggest show-stopping moments came when the characters ended up finding their voice, offering several storyline climaxes for each individual character.
Taking advantage of Matthew Maraffi’s wonderful adapted set design, Mimi’s alluring dancing on the stage’s second floor railing dropped jaws throughout the theater during “Out Tonight” and Angel’s lively drag debut had hearts (and a plastic pickle tub) thumping during “Today 4 U” – both of which feats completed while in rather high heels.
The highest points of the evening’s performance coincidentally came with the highest notes of the evening, with ensemble cast member Rayla Garske stealing the show at the start of the second act with her piercing falsetto in “Seasons of Love,” as well as Hick’s utterly moving revisit of a love song that left audiences in tears with “I’ll Cover You (Reprise).”
Celebrate “La Vie Bohème” and Larson’s magnificent musical and buy your tickets to see Rent soon! With the tour packing up and spreading their message of “no day but today” to another town after their final Hobby Center performance on August 11th, “forget regret” and experience this show before it’s too late.