Walton Arts Center
March 2 – 4, 2018
From younger Millenials clad in Nirvana t-shirts to the cassette revival, Nineties nostalgia is coming en vogue. Unfortunately, music has not caught on as rock ‘n’ roll is basically dead, replaced by the arrhythmic squawking of dubstep. On stage, one musical dominated during the Clinton era – Rent. Loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème, the production became a classic as it reflected the anxieties of Generation X in a way that brought theatre to the age of MTV. A few years ago, Rent was revived with a new cast. Now the touring company has brought the 20th anniversary production to Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville.
Rent tells the story of a group of young artists living in Alphabet City in an era of grit and danger in New York before Guiliani gave the city a power washing and turned it into a playground for the wealthy. The shadow of AIDS looms large over the characters, a fear, no doubt, felt by many in the community during that time. The music and themes makes Rent a time capsule of its era, for better and sometimes worse. Some punchlines fall flat, such as when Mark reveals his ex-girlfriend, Maureen, left him for another woman, Joanne. In 1993, such a reveal must have felt risqué, but now it just garners a shrug. However, the energy and choreography of Rent are undeniable and a testament to its enduring appeal. Songs like “Seasons of Love,” “Life Support” and the title tune merge gravitas with pop sensibilities.
For those who had never seen Rent (like myself), it did have its downsides. The runtime of two-and-a-half hours is taxing. Some of the songs feel like they could have just been trimmed and not harmed the plot at all. Also, it was hard to tell who had AIDS and who did not. By my count, three of the characters didn’t, but I could be wrong. They could have cut down the number of people suffering from the disease without diminishing the emotional impact. Given its parallels to La Bohème, which takes place during a tuberculosis outbreak, it makes sense on an artistic level, but still seems a bit overboard. There were also some scenes, including one preceding the death of a main character in the second act, that just seemed too vague.
With that being said, Rent is a classic and that reputation is not overhyped. The themes of sexuality, acceptance and grief are just as relevant now as they were then. The songs, the dances, the performances of the current cast are unforgettable. If you like musicals or miss a simpler era when Donald Trump didn’t have access to nuclear weapons, go see Rent. You’ll be glad you did. – Kody Ford