SALT LAKE CITY — On the surface, “Rent” is a totally '90s musical. Everyone’s dressed in baggy jeans like they’re in a bad boy band video, or in tight, rock attire like they’re attending a show at CBGB and about to embrace the jagged pill that is '90s grunge music.
Fast forward 20 years from the show’s initial run and the story still holds up, and may even be more relevent in 2019 than you’d expect.
"Rent" opened Tuesday night at Salt Lake's Eccles Theater as a part of its 20th anniversary tour, and nearly all of the cast members hit the high marks set by the show’s original Broadway cast — a tough task, to say the least — and offered a show that stands up to the original.
With a story based on Puccini's 19th-century opera "La Bohème," “Rent” tells the story of angsty young adults struggling to pay their rent and worrying about a cyber arts studio coming to their impoverished neighborhood. Their challenges should be familiar to anyone in their 20s (or beyond): The pain of rising rent prices, a shrinking middle class and weighing whether or not to pursue creative dreams or go with the job that makes the most money.
That last issue is explored in the storyline of Mark Cohen (Logan Marks), who also functions as "Rent's" narrator. Mark sells his riot video footage to a place called Buzz Line, which sounds not unlike a popular news/pop culture website of the modern era. One of the show's closing numbers, “Living in America,” described the challenges of figuring out our place in a society that’s isolating and alienating — a discussion point still relevant today as the prevalence of streaming sites that isolate us from social gatherings that, at another time, we might have embraced.
In addition to its strong messages, the Broadway touring production of "Rent" also boasts a diverse cast that fits pleasantly well in 2019’s call for, well, more diverse actors, actresses, directors and writers. Strong female characters dominated the stage on Tuesday night. Fickle Maureen Johnson (Lyndie Moe), in her patched bell-bottom jeans, and Joanne Jefferson (Lencia Kebede) owned their story, an at-times fraught romance. Moe had the crowd singing along during her rendition of “Over the Moon,” and Kebede's natural charisma and acting chops were some of most powerful of the night.
Not to be outdone, Javon King’s performance as the gender fluid and wonderfully upbeat Angel Schunard wowed the crowd. King's intense dance moves, smooth drum playing and incredible comedic timing won over the audience and had people cheering him on throughout.
Tuesday night's male actors offered a lighter, softer touch to traditionally more aggressive portrayals, especially with Marks' turn as Mark Cohen. His comedic timing and playfulness with the story made this grungy show light-spirited at multiple points, and Marks innocence and hopefulness certainly kept the show from delving too far into the dark territory it most certainly explores.
That said, whenever he had words of affirmation and love toward Mimi, the audience was quick to believe. The gentler touch provided a new rendition of the character who is primarily seen as aggressive and overly dramatic.
Joshua Bess's Roger Davis was also much softer than the role is usually played. The former rock star Roger is meant to be angry and vengeful that his career and life took a turn for the worst. He’s angry, upset, full of rage. But Bess, though a tremendously gifted singer and stage performer, presented a softer Roger than the role asks for. It was hard to believe his anger at Mark, Mimi, or whoever else he approached because of his softer tone.
Perhaps the night's best male performance came from Devinre Adams, whose character Tom Collins represents the soul of the show. His “I’ll Cover You” reprise at a highly emotional moment ignited sniffles and tears from audience members. He put everything he had into his role, and his raw emotion was easily noticeable. He let it all out there.
The company for this “Rent” show still has some kinks to work out. There were a few moments where the cast members weren’t completely in sync, and there were brief blips from the sound and microphones at the Eccles that will figure themselves out as the run continues.
And it's no surprise that "Rent" isn't meant for a family audience. It's a highly sexualized musical that discusses mature themes. There's a brief moment of nudity, too, and plenty of crass innuendos and jokes throughout the play that will turn away those interested in family appropriate plays.Comment on this story
But “Rent” — despite taking place in the early '90s and having had its first run almost 20 years ago — is a musical worthy of this contemporary tour. Tuesday night's production had a strong and diverse cast of characters who showed their true emotions — they sang about their fears, their worries and their anxieties, many of which still plague modern adults. And besides, no matter the era, there will always be time for a season of love.
Content advisory: "Rent" contains partial nudity, sexual innuendos, mature themes and strong language.