June 7–July 2, 2023
Since Rent’s 1996 Broadway debut, Michael Greif’s gritty-polished production has been mimicked in high schools, community theaters, and regional houses across the country. At Paper Mill Playhouse, Zi Alikhan’s rendition immediately distinguishes itself. Yes, there are still baggy sweaters and colorful folding chairs, but as a production this Rent is as much elegy as it is musical.
Before the performance begins, a projected video illuminates queer foreparents, filmed in black and white, who spin yarns and share tales of New York in the 1980s. “There was no greater place to be,” the subtitles for one woman read.
The interviewees—septuagenarians who lived in Lower Manhattan during the setting of Jonathan Larson’s musical—may not be heard, but their effusion and nostalgia are clear. What is gone from that era cannot be recaptured, making Alikhan’s Rent a memorial to a bygone era. With Gen Z stepping into adulthood, we are now entering an era in which all future youthful casts of Rent, such as the accomplished Paper Mill one, may have lived their entire lives after the twelve-month period depicted in the show.
Projection designers Nicholas Hussong and Jamie Godwin’s original footage, then, acts as a mini documentary accomplishing two goals: first, it is both a heartfelt vessel to remind elder audiences, and teach new ones, of a time when the median one-bedroom rent in the East Village wasn’t, per StreetEasy’s June 2023 report, around $3,500 a month. (Somewhere, Benny is making out like a bandit, and by placing the ever-captivating Jordan Barrow in hideous white sunglasses, costume designer Rodrigo Muñoz reassures that it’s the rich who often have no taste.)
Paper Mill’s audiences are largely white and middle-class, some well-to-do. Despite Millburn’s proximity to New York City, it might not be a stretch to say many in the house were aware of the East Village culture in the 1990s but seldom interacted with it. (Growing up privileged and gay in northern New Jersey, Rent was my most immediate window into queer downtown life, something I never saw for myself until my 20s.) The pre-show footage is entree and testament.
Second, it becomes the framing for the show; as the filmmaker Mark (Zachary Noah Piser) takes the stage, it’s clear he survived the AIDS epidemic that ravished his community, and the footage we’re watching is his present-day attempt to recapture the magic that defined his youth, aspirations, and relationships. What follows is a prismatic ghost story.
A documentary is both a lively primary source and aging fossil. It’s a wise container for Rent, whose core is the push and pull between life and death, and the indescribable essence that sits between those poles. That word, of course, may be rent itself: we are not here forever, so all time is borrowed. Alikhan’s talented cast understands this urgency, with the three central couples (Matt Rodin as Roger and Alisa Melendez as Mimi, Terrance Johnson as Collins and Olivia Lux as Angel, and Mackenzie Meadows as Maureen and Leana Rae Concepcion as Joanne) bringing spark and sorrow to their all-too-temporary youths.
Alikhan further differentiates his Rent in its casting. The original actors formed not only a cult phenomenon but also a casting template, even though few roles have strict, textual descriptions of racial or ethnic background. Because of Fredi Walker, Idina Menzel, and Anthony Rapp’s cementing performances, Joannes are often Black and Maureens and Marks white. Now, Joanne is Filipina, Maureen Black, and Mark Hapa. Also notable is Angel’s stature; with platform boots for wings, Lux towers and takes flight over her beloved, Collins, already placing her closer to heaven.
The staging is not always as assured as the fresh interpretation. Scenes and faces are sometimes strangely hidden from view: in “Another Day,” Rodin and Melendez each sing their verses facing upstage to quarrel with their partner, and the first support group meeting happens behind one of Chika Shimizu’s (flued but large) set pieces, obscuring much of the scene.
Other times, actors facing away from the audience is nicely realized: in “Seasons of Love,” Mark faces the singers as videos of the pre-show interviewees light up the walls, effectively letting him take in their stories and understand the weight of time.
Matt Kraus’s sound design and Cha See’s lighting try to center focus, but the songs are so high-octane it’s hard to doubt the actors’ emotions or intentions. Meadows’s effortless belt and Concepcion’s lawyerly speech pattern make “Take Me or Leave Me” a vocal highlight, and Rodin, one of the more grounded performers, never fails to telegraph Roger’s internal cocktail of artistic yearning, survivor's guilt, and romantic repression.
Alikhan’s minimalist production is almost swallowed by Paper Mill’s cavernous proscenium, but regardless of scale, its tonal balance of the vibrant and the moribund is undeniable. Rent has become so ubiquitous (MTI issues a School Edition, after all) that its raw edges are often sanded down to cutesy bohemia. It’s even become the stuff of parody: standing on the Paper Mill stage as a closeted seventeen-year-old, I performed “9 People’s Favorite Thing” from [title of show] as part of the theater’s summer conservatory. A mid-song lyric spoofs “Seasons of Love”: “Those nine people will tell nine people / Then we’ll have eighteen people loving the show / Then eighteen people could grow into / Five-hundred and twenty-five-thousand, six-hundred people / loving our show.” To stage the lyric connoting the number of minutes in a year, my peers and I crossed our arms (to act cold!) and loosened our posture (to act edgy!).
Rent can be soft and toothless, but Alikhan understands what a disgrace that would be to the turning point of a New York heyday. Recently, I asked my editor how the East Village was; he’s been there for a while and is now raising a family. He scoffed, which said it all: prohibitive cost of living, artistic decline, gentrification with no appreciation. But then I asked, when do you feel like it’s still the East Village?
He shared that, while walking through Tompkins Square Park with his young son, he once saw someone shooting up near the public ping pong tables. The man saw my editor’s young son eyeing him and bashfully turned away, apologizing to my editor, perhaps for thinking others saw him as a taboo spectacle. My editor said something like, no, it’s fine, do your thing. Everyone smiled at one another and then kept going about their day.
That’s just one story, but within it is something intergenerational, which is also exuded in the footage of the aging population of former downtown dwellers. Those voices share past stories, but they still have life yet. As Melendez croons “Out Tonight,” she pants between each chorus. It seems she’s both high on the promise of a thrilling night and literally trying to catch her breath. What greater fullness is there?