THEATER | “Rent” feels fresh and thrilling in homegrown production at The Lab Theater

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The production of Rent currently playing at The Lab Theater is the kind of thing you don’t see very often: a homegrown, fully-staged, professional production of a Broadway musical. There’s a good reason you don’t see such productions very often, and it’s not an artistic reason—as this production makes clear, we have no shortage of dazzling local talent. The reason is economic: professional musicals are expensive, and without the tourist traffic of New York or the economies of scale enjoyed by touring productions, it’s hard not to lose your shirt. The ominous number of empty seats at Thursday night’s performance of Rent augur that locally-produced musicals may continue to be a rarity, so catch it while you can.

I’d never seen any production of Rent prior to Thursday night—there hadn’t seemed to be much reason to. The last touring production that came to the Orpheum was greeted with a big shrug; even my mom called it “a period piece.” It sure seems fresh in director Andrew Rasmussen’s vigorous production at The Lab, though: references to Doc Martens and yuppies serve as amusing and slightly surprising reminders that the show debuted in 1994. That was before multicultural urban rock operas were standard fare on Broadway, but what I was pleased to discover about Rent is that none of the characters feel token: they’re rich and human, and their circumstances are simply treated as their reality.

The plot, for those of you who have been under the rock with me for the past 16 years, concerns a group of young people living the boho dream (writer Jonathan Larson was inspired by La Boheme, and by his own experiences) in New York City, fighting gentrification, discrimination, drug addiction, HIV, The Man, and their own demons. They fight, break up, make up, live, and die. The specific situations were (and are) contemporary, but the basic plot elements are older than a certain Middle Eastern Jew whose birth is celebrated at the beginning and end of the show. In fact, the show even reaches into His bag of tricks for a last-minute plot twist.

rent, playing through february 21 at the lab theater. for tickets ($46.50) and information, see rentminneapolislive.com.

There’s a lot that’s exciting about this production, and the excitement begins with the casting. The local performers who fill the stage are skilled and experienced, but they perform with the kind of gusto you usually see only in high school productions. That’s a compliment: they sing like they mean it. Leads Maria Isa and Harley Wood have tremendous charisma—more individually than together, but charisma nonetheless. Casting Isa, in particular, was a coup. She looks and sounds like a star; she nails her vocal solos with technical finesse and palpable emotion, and she wears her thigh-high black boots like she invented them.

Rent demands a deep cast, though, and this production has it. To the potentially awkward role of white-boy filmmaker Mark, Reid Harmsen brings conviction and a wry sense of humor. Kinaundrae Lee makes Angel as lovable as he needs to be for later developments to carry weight, and Lorin Yenor is charming as Angel’s boyfriend Collins. The absolute high point of the evening is an indignant duet between Colleen Somerville and Jamecia Bennett as a dating couple, which outdoes anything in Dreamgirls as a no-holds-barred diva-on-diva vocal smackdown.

Bonnie Bologna’s set and Barb Portigna’s costumes are serviceable and unobtrusive, as is the performance by musical director Dennis Curley’s band. Really, what you’re paying to see here are the actors’ performances, and they do not disappoint. At $46.50, tickets for this production of Rent are in the ballpark of what you’d pay to see a touring production on Hennepin—but what you lose in fancy sets and gilded proscenium is more than made up for by close proximity to tremendous performers. Every time a song ended, I found myself surprised to hear the pitter-patter of a small audience’s applause rather than the thunder of a full Orpheum. I now understand why Rent is one of the top-grossing Broadway shows of all time, and this thrilling production feels true to the DIY spirit the show celebrates. Don’t miss it.

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