By Patrick O’Brien
Call it what you will—blithe obliviousness, a cultural blind spot, willful ignorance, a sense that it’ll be around forever, what-have-you —but Theo Ubique’s 20th-anniversary production of RENT was my first full-on exposure to the material.
So not only would I be reviewing a musical based on its textual merits, but also without doing so through the lens of legend—not just the little musical that became a cultural juggernaut, but the legend of composer/librettist Jonathan Larson, who died unexpectedly before the first off-Broadway preview, and who clearly had so much more to give.
And not only is it a legend. It’s a bona fide classic, if the high volume of grey hair at this most youthful of shows on the night I saw it is any indication. Can the very, very 90’s RENT still have drawing power in the teens? Shouldn’t its candle have dimmed any?
Nope, not by a lumen.
But, truly, there’s not much more for me to add. RENT can only be judged on its own terms—its unpolished, technically unfinished terms—and yet, it has proven judgment-proof in all its smartass, vainglorious, heartstring-yanking glory. And deservedly so.
It is timeless, and yet timely for a world where even the musical’s naysayers, with their chorus of “Shape up, get a job, and move on,” are feeling priced out.
And as nice as a big Broadway hit playing big Broadway houses can be, there’s something simply right about doing the show acoustically in Theo’s cabaret space, every nook and cranny tricked out in urban-blight chic (by Adam Veness and a small army of graffiti artists), ably putting us in Alphabet City inside Rogers Park.
And the intimacy immensely helps in drawing us into a day in the lives of eight New Yorkers, beyond the fringes of respectability, on the brink of something. In the first act—a single day, Christmas Eve —“something” means whether or not today, they’ll create an everlasting work—a film (Matt Edmonds as filmmaker Mark), a song (Patrick Rooney as musician Roger), a political tremor (Courtney Jones and Nicole Michelle Haskins as performance artist Maureen and straight-laced manager and beau JoAnne, respectively)—or if they’ll wind up homeless (thanks in part to Jaymes Osborne as landlord Benny).
In the second act—a whole year—that “something” means whether or not they’ll live to see the payoff for their labors in the years to come, especially concerning the AIDS-afflicted Angel, Collins, and drug-addict Mimi (played by Aubrey McGrath, Chuckie Benson and Savannah Hooper, respectively). AIDS may not be the specter of death it once was, but, as the title song puts it, “everything is rent”—nothing is promised to anyone, not even life. The singular irony that shoots through every moment of Larson’s searingly earnest work.
You can also measure that love in Scott Weinstein and Daniel Spagnulo’s direction and choreography, respectively, in using the space to flit us throughout the boho neighborhood without whiplash, as well as music director Jeremy Ramey’s work to balance Theo Ubique’s acoustic trademark with the driving demands of the score. Kristof Janezic’s lights and Izumi Inaba’s costume are well-tailored, too, but Brock Alter on projections makes just as big an impression with a single window space as his canvas.
And in a production as well-cast as this, for a musical that has made and upheld many more performers, singling anyone out is hard to do. But for a first-timer, Edmonds makes an impression as the (rather Sondheimian) removed observer Mark; McGrath as Angel is both brassy street maven and provider; Benson’s reprise of “I’ll Cover You” is worth the admission price; and Hooper, in the role of confused waif Mimi, makes a tremendous impression in what turns out to be her Chicago debut.
RENT-heads young and old will want to catch this special staging to see the object of their love so reinvigorated, for sure. And those new to the fold—all twelve of you—will not regret starting your seasons-long journey with Larson’s loving legend here.
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s “RENT” runs through May 1 at the No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave. Performances are on Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; and Sundays at 7 pm Tickets ($34-44, with a $5 discount for students and seniors) are available by calling (800) 595-4849 or online here. Dinner is available for an additional $25 with prior reservations. Any unsold tickets will be sold at the door as student rush for $15 with ID, cash only, at curtain.