BY TARA SMITH
It feels strange to think about the legacy of “Rent” 21 years after it premiered on Broadway, since the show’s late creator, Jonathan Larson, was one for living in the moment. “Forget regret. Or life is yours to miss.”
I was 3 years old when “Rent” made its Broadway debut, but as a teenager I may as well have tattooed those lyrics onto my arm. All I had to go on was the original Broadway soundtrack and the 2005 film, knowing that at every high school Blue Masques audition, a hopeful cast member would sing “Take Me Or Leave Me.”
During the opening last week, the woman sitting to my left was also bobbing her head to the beat. At one point, I heard her whisper, “I feel like I’m 16 again.”
Needless to say, seeing “Rent” live on stage was a truly special evening.
This “Rent,” directed by Matt Karis and choreographed by Gerry McIntyre, kicks off Gateway Playhouse’s 68th season, The production is fantastic, detailing a year —or 525,600 minutes — in the lives of eight friends who make up some of the most marginalized populations, through the eyes of Mark, who decides to “shoot without a script” and document the year on camera.
There’s Roger, a songwriter struggling with the loss of his girlfriend to AIDS; Mimi, a dancer and junkie; Collins and his partner Angel, a drag queen, both battling AIDS; Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen and her girlfriend Joanne, and Benny, roommate-turned-landlord of Mark and Roger.
Jeremy Greenbaum nails the role of Mark, taking a nerdy and lighthearted approach with crisp and clean vocals. Your heart will break for Anthony Festa, who plays a brooding and belting Roger. His grittiness is perfectly matched by Michelle Veintimilla’s portrayal of Mimi.
The Selden native (Firefly in “Gotham”) transitions from screen to stage effortlessly. She is as much elegant as she is raw on stage, seen in her high-energy number, “Out Tonight.” As Benny, Kyle Robert Carter strikes a balance between hero and villain.
As Maureen and Joanne, Natalie Storrs and Moeisha McGill are a pleasure to watch. The energy of their on-and-off-again relationship provides both comic relief and hope. McGill and Greenbaum’s face-off in “Tango: Maureen” was a rousing, standout number.
There is not one weak link in the casting, but Jared Dixon as Tom Collins and Andres Quintero as Angel Schunard steal the show. Dixon’s brave optimism soars in the daydream of “Sante Fe.” Quintero plays a fearless Angel, flawlessly busting moves in heels and bringing much-needed energy to a doom-and-gloom story. Despite their doomed battle with HIV/AIDS, the pair is desperate for love and life. Their chemistry is easily the most believable. I could listen to those riffs day and night in “I’ll Cover You.”
Perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment in the show is Collins reprising “I’ll Cover You” at his lover’s funeral, a sincere tribute to a romance that tugs at even the most cynical heartstrings.
This young cast works magic on a minimalist set that highlights colorful costumes and serves as a backdrop for powerful choreography. McIntyre’s seemingly simple steps are nuanced enough to match the movement and madness of New York City in 1989; at times, it seems the company really are dancing as if it’s their last day.
As Act II began, my boyfriend laughed at me for tearing up at “Seasons of Love.” While explaining to him how sacred of a musical text “Rent” is, my hot-take was that “Seasons of Love” was my least favorite number, a played-out cliché. Perhaps years of singing the alto part in high school choirs jaded me; hearing it live moved me. Amma Osei brought the house down with her powerful solo. Scanning their faces as the company stood side-by-side at the edge of the stage, each looked connected to the words, smiling in a blurred moment between actor and character.
I wondered, seeing how young they were, if any of them had ever sung that in a choir growing up.
Gateway’s “Rent” is as bold, brazen and beautiful as ever, reminding all of us to live for the moment.
“Rent” runs at The Gateway Playhouse through June 3. The running time is three hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets, call 631-286-1133 or visit https://thegateway.org.
Photo Caption: Jeremy Greenbaum (Mark) and the company of “Rent” during the rousing number, “La Vie Boheme.”
Photo courtesy Jeff Bellante
*This review was originally published in the Long Island Advance, May 25, 2017.