Twenty years since its game-changing Broadway debut, "Rent" could well be a nostalgic exercise right up there with "The Sound Of Music" or "Cats."
The fact that it's not is a testament to the late Jonathan Larson's creation, to the unfortunately cyclical nature of society and, in no small part, to the skills of the 20th anniversary touring company that's at the Fisher Theatre through Sunday, March 26.
"Rent" is dated somewhat by its focus on the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and90s, which does not have the front-burner urgency that it had when the Tony Award-and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical debuted -- when most of the millenial-aged cast of the present company were toddlers at best. But its other themes -- about classicism, gender, gentrification, economic disparity, isolation and, of course, the healing powers of true love -- still resonate. A song like "What You Own" is as appropriate in the age of Trump as it did in Bill Clinton's America.
"Rent's" greatest asset, however, is its songs. Larson's music still has potent melodic integrity, and "Rent's" best moments -- "Seasons Of Love," "You'll See," "Santa Fe," "I'll Cover You," "Life Support," "La Vie Boheme A" and "What You Own" -- transcend the musical's time and place, making profound statements outside the narrative while also bolstering the story. They feel like comfortable old friends, in a way, contemporary standards that on opening night were greeted like a pop icon's greatest hits.
It's all in good hands with this cast, which includes West Bloomfield-raised Danny Harris Kornfeld as Mark Cohen, the neurotic artisan filmmaker who's unlucky in both love (girlfriend Maureen Johnson leaves him to take up with attorney Joanne Jefferson) and vocation. Kornfeld's astute portrayal makes Mark seem like "Rent's" most "normal" character, playing his deeper-seeded issues subtly and letting them surface gradually until the cathartic "Goodbye Love" in Act 2.
The rest of the physically nimble cast follows suit, seldom rushing their characters' arcs -- though occasionally over-emoting a few of the vocal parts. Kaleb Wells deftly channels Roger Davis' seething anger, while David Merino and Skyler Volpe shift between playful and poignant as Angel Schunard and Mimi Marquez, respectively. And Katie Lamark's performance of Maureen's performance art opus "Over The Moon" had the Fisher audience mooing in all the right parts.
There's no question "Rent" is a heritage theater piece, and a well-earned one at that. But it's still a potent piece of work two decades later, and we'll probably be saying the same thing about it two decades from now.
Tuesday, March 21-March 26.
The Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit.
Tickets are $36-$85.
Special $20 tickets in the first two rows will be available for each performance and sold by lottery two and a half hours prior to curtain time.
Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.
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