'Rent' remains as poignant as ever during 20th anniversary tour

Review: Now, perhaps more than any time in recent memory, a musical about life, protest, love and community is needed.

Jonathan Larson’s Rent is, distilled to its purest form, a story about life and what you do with it. One of the musical's most quoted lines is "No day but today" - a sentiment that is as poignant today as it was when Larson premiered it off-Broadway in 1996.

The 20th anniversary tour of Rent, which played at the Oncenter Crouse Hinds Theater from Nov. 15-17, provides audiences with heartfelt, powerful performances and proved why the musical has lasted 20 years.

Photo: Courtesy of Carol Rosegg
Powerhouses Jasmine Easler and Syracuse University alumna Katie Lamark perform “Take Me or Leave Me.”

Framed by Mark, a filmmaker who wants to record the events of his and his friends’ lives, the show follows a year in the lives of eight New Yorkers, some of whom are living with HIV near the height of the disease’s epidemic. Throughout the year, relationships between the eight are built, broken and repaired as they deal with drug addiction, illness and living on the edge of poverty in New York City.

In a show where each main character brings something different and special to the performance, the touring production’s cast was by and large magnificent. Syracuse University alum Danny Harris Kornfeld seems to truly understand the role of Mark in a way many actors don’t – he clearly shows the side of the character that initially embraces the role of numb, detached narrator, but ultimately rejects it. Skyler Volpe reminds the audience that the character of Mimi is, in fact, a teenager by lending her a young anxiety. As Roger, Kaleb Wells hosts a dark humor as well as the character’s traditionally palpable anger.

Paul Clay’s set involved the asymmetrical levels typical of Rent, but its staging felt fresh. The lighting provided a softer side to the jagged metal set, but fell in line with the edginess required of the show. A large paper lantern hung above upstage left in lieu of the moon, and as its light waned and waxed it almost became a character itself, silently announcing the passing of time.

Jasmine Easler and Syracuse University alumna Katie Lamark as back-and-forth lovers Joanne and Maureen are among the strongest vocally – “Take Me or Leave Me” was charged with fun, loud chemistry between the two powerhouses. Aaron Herrington also shone as philosophy professor Tom Collins, his evocative baritone stirring up deep emotions during “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” and adding to the hopeful fun of “Santa Fe.”

While all the cast seemed to fully understand the theatrical aspects of their roles, some fell a bit short vocally. Volpe played Mimi with great emotional gravity, but the powerful belting was missing from songs like “Another Day” and “Goodbye Love.” Her work on slow, mournful “Without You” was excellent, however, and made the song that much more heartbreaking to watch. David Merino as Angel was wonderful, and his youthful energy fit perfectly with the character, but there were many points in the show where he couldn’t be heard over the music.

Overall, the 20th anniversary production shows exactly why Rent has endured. The show asks how to measure a year in the life - and while 2016 might be best remembered for uncertainty, fear and pain, Larson urges us to keep in mind what lasts: love. In 20 years, that is the one thing that hasn’t changed.

As Mimi would say, “There’s only now, there’s only here. Give into love or live in fear.”

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