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Saturday, July 20, 2024

Theatre review: Rent twenty years later

Does Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking musical still hold up?

There is no denying the impact Jonathan Larsan’s Rent had when it first made its move to Broadway in 1996. Audiences couldn’t get enough of this rock musical about a group of twenty-somethings in search of a place in the world as they battled addiction and poverty under the shadow of the continuing AIDS epidemic.

Camping out overnight for a chance at $20 tickets to a show that commanded multiples more in its perennial sold-out run, it touched a nerve with many of the same demographic as was being portrayed on stage.

Going on to win multiple Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the shows incredible twelve-year run would eventually put it in the record books as the 11th longest-running show on Broadway.

It also helped re-shape what audiences thought of as musical theatre, with its operatic vibe set to a rock score. Real and visceral, it paved the way for a new breed of musical theatre artists, including Lin Manuel Miranda who has regularly credited Rent as inspiration for becoming a composer himself.

But twenty plus years later, does the ground-breaking musical still hold up? In the anniversary touring production which just arrived in Vancouver this week, the answer will depend on who you ask.

For many in the audience at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on opening night, the response was a resounding yes. The familiarity as characters took to the stage was met with enthusiasm, even before they had a chance to sing a single note. And while the audience mercifully refrained from considering this a sing-a-long version, there was little doubt that there were many Rent-heads in attendance.

The 20th-anniversary production of Rent also heralds new shifts. A more genuine musical theatre experience for Generation X has replaced Broadway’s nostalgic pickpocketing of boomers with 80s jukebox musicals. And while the costumes may scream the 90s, in this production the diversity is very 2019.

The company of the Rent 20th Anniversary Tour. Photo by Amy Boyle.
The company of the Rent 20th Anniversary Tour. Photo by Amy Boyle.

As for its themes, like Puccini’s opera La Bohème on which Larson based his play, they are timeless. The era may have changed, but the struggles of growing up inside an increasingly complex and unforgiving world still resonate.

So indeed, Rent does stand the test of time. But what of this anniversary touring production? Does it hold up its end of the bargain?

Again, it will largely depend on who you ask. While the opening night performance may have concluded with an enthusiastic standing ovation from an audience drawn into the nostalgia, cast a more critical eye, and its emotional resonance rarely landed.

Perhaps not surprising from a non-equity cast, consisting largely of emerging artists landing their first major role, the singing overshadowed the acting in this production. And while acknowledging the music is vital, a show like Rent demands so much more from its performers. It isn’t good enough to act the emotions; it requires them to feel them as well.

It is here where this touring production struggles. While there are many fine stage moments, rarely does it coalesce with the necessary beating heart.

Rent with book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Evan Ensign. A Work Light Productions presentation from Broadway Across Canada. On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (630 Hamilton St, Vancouver) until September 22. Visit for tickets and information.

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