Measured in love, Signature Theatre’s exuberant production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent (★★★★☆) is laudable for the entire company’s palpable excitement to be presenting theater to live audiences again, and for the way the cast and musicians attack Larson’s iconic score with heart and panache.
Staged in semi-immersive fashion by Signature artistic director Matthew Gardiner, the production transmits the urgency of youthful drive and ambition amidst dire circumstances, a quality that propels the La Bohème-inspired story, and certainly connects these ’90s characters and their travails to the present-day.
The overly politicized pandemic of the era might have changed, but communities bedeviled by drug abuse, discrimination, and income inequality are very much still a thing. “How we gonna pay last year’s rent” is no less profound a lyric than it ever was.
Paige Hathaway’s graffiti- and band sticker-strewn scenic design fill and surround the open MAX theater space with the gritty touches of ’90s East Village streets and tenement apartments. while Erik Teague’s costumes, perhaps too reliant on flannel as a signifier, offer bright, joyful contrast to the mean streets. The combo of set and costume design, with Adam Honoré’s lighting, alert to every beat of the experience, reach peak expression as David Merino’s radiant Angel Dumott Schunard takes the stage for a winning “Today 4 U.”
The show hits many other musical highs, with Vincent Kempski as Roger delivering a soaring “One Song Glory,” Katie Mariko Murray and Ines Nassara laying down a dynamic “Take Me or Leave Me,” and ensemble member Kaiyla Gross shaking the rafters with “Seasons of Love.”
Every bar is beautifully supported by conductor Angie Benson and her five-piece orchestra, who really bring it on “Another Day” (especially drummer Danté Pope). The entire ensemble gives great shape and sass to Rickey Tripp’s choreography, and music director Mark G. Meadows keeps the score sounding fresh.
Measured note for note against the rock edge the show strives for, and particularly Larson’s rawer-feeling songs in tick, tick…Boom! (adapted in a new Netflix film, co-starring this issue’s cover star Robin de Jesús), the Rent score can’t help sounding a tad like watered-down rebellion.
Signature’s production doesn’t solve that, nor the somewhat dated aspects of the script, like the fact that Angel is presented alternately as a drag queen and as a femme-presenting gender-nonconforming person with no real distinction between the two.
In other ways, characters like aspiring filmmaker Mark (Jake Loewenthal) and not-so-doomed addict Mimi (Arianna Rosario) read more as fond caricatures of struggling young artists than aching, yearning illustrations of the real thing.
But collectively, these characters’ voices still ring true, and their songs still move an audience from their hearts to their tapping feet. The bonds of chosen family, rendered persuasively onstage and felt in the very atmosphere of the building, still light the candle of community that makes a theater feel like home.
Rent runs through Jan. 2, 2022 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, Va., with a Pride Night performance on Friday, Nov. 19. Tickets are $40 to $108. Call 703-820-9771, or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
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