Review: A New Generation Tries to Capture the Bittersweet Pain and Transcendent Triumph of Rent in Porchlight’s Season Opener

Attending opening night of Porchlight Music Theatre’s season opener, Rent, was a peculiar proposition for me from the moment I RSVPed, but one I was willing to entertain for the sake of Jonathan Larson’s landmark rock opera and what it means to me. The show, loosely based on Puccini’s La Boheme, has been more formative for me than any other production I know: as a theatergoer soaking up musicals since seeing Cats at just seven years old; as a Millennial coming of age in the late ’90s/early aughts in the shadow of the AIDS crisis and at the dawn of a new era in technology; and as a human being simply trying to exist, trying to figure out how to be, how to connect, how to lose and love and persist through it all.

Soon after it premiered on Broadway in 1996, I spent the rest of my high school years belting the original Broadway cast album (Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin, Adam Pascal) into a hairbrush in my room. When I started my own business in 2017, I originally named it after the 11th Street Lot where Maureen stages her performance art/protest against gentrification. Though I didn’t catch the original cast, I did see the show on Broadway in the summer of 2000. Since then, I’ve seen numerous touring companies in cities across the country; like Les Miserables (also formative in its own way), I try to catch it any time I can, a chance to revisit these characters who feel like friends and their stories that feel like my own. Rent, suffice it to say, is in my bones.

Which is why it brings me no pleasure whatsoever to share that Porchlight’s production, directed by Adrian Abel Azevedo, staged by scenic designer Ann Davis and choreographed by Laura Savage, is unfortunately a low-energy, middling representation of what this sharp, incisive and ultimately profound musical can be. From casting missteps that deprive the audience of the full power of Larson’s rock ballads and lyrical social commentary to a confusing (and somewhat pandering) stage design entirely reimagined from the industrial warehouse-style abandoned loft of the original, the real saving grace of Rent, on stage through November 27, is the material itself. What felt bold and thrilling in its day—unabashedly embracing sexuality, love and connection in all its beautiful, messy iterations, rebuking capitalism and its detrimental effect on our collective humanity, challenging expectations of artists, both their own of themselves and the world of them—is today the time capsule we didn’t know we needed, a reminder of where we were then, how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

Lucy Godínez as Maureen Johnson and Teressa LaGamba as Joanne Jefferson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Porchlight’s production does get some things right, and these are worth celebrating. Josh Pablo Szabo as Angel is a revelation, a bright light of love, energy and sass, everything that glorious role is meant to be, and every moment they’re on stage is a treat. I found myself looking forward to Angel’s numbers, a role that’s not typically what I gravitate most towards. This time around, her story held me more captive than any other in the show’s many romantic, tragic threads. Szabo’s chemistry with Eric Lewis as Tom Collins is palpable and believable; Lewis himself has pipes to rival his Broadway predecessor, Martin, to be sure. Likewise, David Moreland as Mark, the Larson stand-in who’s perpetually single and observing the world as it passes him by, is straight-laced in just the right measure and fiery when he needs to be. And Teressa Lagamba as Joanne and Lucy Godinez as Maureen prove a powerful power couple, as well.

It’s the casting of Roger (Shraga Wasserman) and Mimi (Alix Rhode) that mainly leaves much to be desired, as neither seems to have the inner fire required to bring either character the depth they deserve. These are tortured, confused souls dealing with some heavy, scary shit, but you wouldn’t know it based on these performances. Wasserman’s attempt at an angsty, wanna-be rockstar just results in an annoying tick of being perpetually a half-beat behind the orchestra, delivering lines just delayed enough to drag down the whole proceeding. Rhode tries mightily to give Mimi a jolt of badass-ery, but with not much to do during “Take Me Out” (gone is the fire-escape-like set to wriggle and writhe around, replaced with…a sort-of-strip-tease?), the number comes off more like me singing into my hairbrush from way back when, impersonating someone far cooler than I (or she) will ever be.

Porchlight’s ever-versatile stage becomes part Alphabet City loft, part late-’90s allegory here, with stairs leading up to a rarely used balcony overhead and an oversized VHS tape making up the back wall of the scenery. The tape serves, at various times during the show, as a doorway into the apartment, a backdrop for projected setting descriptors (why do we need to be told where we are in every scene? Is there not a way to show us?) and in general a far-too-on-the-nose reminder that this show is set in the waning days of analog media (methinks Larson’s lyrics about dying at the end of a millennium does that sufficiently, but what do I know?).

Any show should have the right to evolve over the decades, and it’s possible I’m too close to this one in particular to allow much wiggle room for growth at the cost of the original’s indelible impact (on me, yes, but also on culture as a whole). It’s a strange thing to witness the premiere of something so groundbreaking and then, 25 years later, watch a new generation (how many in this cast were even alive when Rent first arrived on Broadway?) try to interpret its many layers, messages and intentions. There are wonderful nods to this evolution that I hope become canon, like allowing for Angel’s name to be pronounced in its authentic Spanish (as Ahn-hel) rather than the anglicized version of the original. But if a new generation interpreting Larson’s genius comes at the cost of losing the context, the depth, the bittersweet pain and the incandescent triumph of this exceptional work, it’s for anyone to see (and not just those diehards like me) that that is far too high a price to pay.

Rent by Porchlight Music Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., has been extended through December 11; tickets and more information are available online here.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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