By Melissa Arnold
With Election Day less than two months away now, the media is saturated with heated debates about crime, poverty, drugs and equality. These were the same issues that inspired Manhattan-based playwright Jonathan Larson to create “Rent,” a rock opera that made its off-Broadway debut in 1996.
Now through Oct. 2, diehard “Rent-heads” and first-timers alike can celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary during its run at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts.
“Rent” is heavily based on Giacomo Puccini’s famous opera “La Boheme,” which follows the struggles of poor artists in Paris. Larson’s story is set in Alphabet City on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the end of the 1980s, where aspiring director Mark and songwriter Roger are living in squalor. It’s also the height of the AIDS epidemic – drugs are everywhere, being gay is stigmatized, and one way or another, every member of the cast is just trying to survive.
With all this in mind, it’s not exactly a cheery show. But there is plenty of humor to go around, and its biggest messages — no day but today, forget regret — are inspiring and hopeful.
Jess Ader Ferretti
Dondi Rollins Jr.
Jose A. Torres
While this is director Mark Decaterina’s first time leading a production, the cast at SCPA are no strangers to the stage, and many have appeared in “Rent” before with other groups. Their skill makes each of the characters’ struggles and triumphs that much more believable.
As a rock opera, the show’s score is loud and proud — there are very few periods of purely spoken dialogue. Musical director Melissa Coyle (keyboard) leads a small but powerful ensemble with Chad Goodstein on guitar, Jim Waddell on drums and and Rob Curry on bass.
Worth particular mention are Scott Johnston (Roger) and Michelle Rubino (Mimi), who play HIV-positive heroin addicts in various stages of recovery. Their performances were raw and emotional in a way that’s hard to shake. This is especially true in their duets “No Day But Today” and “Without You.”
Jose A. Torres (Angel) does a great job bringing humor into the show as an unapologetically flamboyant drag queen and street drummer. You can’t help but fall in love with him as he dances effortlessly in a serious pair of heels.
While the majority of the individual performances were strong, the cast shines most during ensemble numbers. Their harmonies are perfect and might even make the hair on your neck stand up. The title song “Rent” and famous “Seasons of Love” show off the cast’s enormous talent.
The show was enjoyable overall, but the performance on opening night included multiple issues with sound and video. Some lines were inaudible or too loud, with a few instances of feedback, and the crucial movie projected onstage at the end of the show was barely visible. Hopefully, these were just quirks that will be corrected for upcoming performances.
“Rent” is for mature audiences — the show includes strong language, intense sexual dialogue, and drug use as a major plot point. However, it could also serve as a great springboard to conversation for families with teens.
Run time is approximately 2.5 hours with a 15-minute intermission. All tickets are $35. The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts is located at 2 E. Main St., Smithtown. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.smithtownpac.org or call 631-724-3700.