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[Stage Review]: RENT 20th Anniversary Tour
Seasons of Love indeed! This week only, the iconic musical is spreading La Vie Boheme in Shanghai
By Sep 3, 2018 Stage
This week the 20th Anniversary Tour of rock musical Rent makes a brief stop at Shanghai Culture Square. Written by Jonathan Larson, a relatively obscure composer, the show gained quick acclaim after its 1996 Broadway premiere for deviating from dreamy contemporaries like Cats and Phantom of the Opera. Rent depicted grittier issues of the day like sexuality, homelessness, drug addiction and the AIDS epidemic. Inspired by the opera “La Boheme” and set in New York City, the musical follows a group of friends for a year as they sing about their devotion to the artist’s life and each other.

The show would go on to win multiple Tony Awards as well as the Pulitzer Prize. Only nine musicals have won a Pulitzer in drama, most recent Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Miranda wrote an op-ed explaining how Rent both inspired and paved the way for him by contemporizing musical theater with both its diversity and modernity.

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Rent has secured its place in history, but twenty plus years later (the anniversary tour is in its second year), how does it fare? Like an episode of Friends, the answer’s a bit nuanced. Apart from being a time capsule for nineties pop culture and clothes, its plot devices now seem questionable. Like everyone has to pay rent, even artists, technology can be good, and if we’re supposed to root for Mimi, she should probably be given a moment of redemption wherein she stops trying to get her recovering heroin-addict boyfriend to do heroin.

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All that said it’s still Rent, every song is good, and every other song is great. And the touring production delivers with big talent and bigger voices. Stand out performances came from Lencia Kebede as a comedic yet sincere Joanne, Javon King makes the audience swoon as Angel, and Logan Marks lends a great voice to Mark Cohen—which let’s face it, it’s hard to stand out as Mark. Particularly enjoyable is “Tango: Maureen”, a song and dance where Mark warns Joanne about the wicked ways of their shared love interest.

Logan Farine brought all of the brooding to Roger and Deri’Andra Tucker brought vulnerability to Mimi. The chemistry between the two is there as they sing-scream sweet nothings to each other. The ensemble is solid and of all the Broadway productions that cycle through Shanghai this is one of the best acted. The pacing of the show is quick, moving almost breathlessly from one big song to the next, keeping the audience rapt throughout.

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One thing to brace for is that Shanghai Culture Square allows theatergoers to shuffle in late at the start of the show and following intermission. This caused visceral heartache as “Seasons of Love” started the second act and about one-third of the audience was still trickling in. By the time everyone was settled the song was nearly over.

Despite distractions, it was interesting to see a performance of Rent play out in front of a Shanghai audience. The show’s mission at inception was to be as diverse and provocative as possible and this touring production has kept the show almost entirely in its original glory; even “Contact” was left in, a song often taken out of more PG versions of the show. There was some slight editing: in “La Vie Boheme” the line enumerating sexual preferences and identities is scrapped yet the line about lesbians and dykes remains.

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But what makes Rent great is still very much there: the lovable characters, catchy songs, and the central message, which essentially boils down to YOLO. Whether you’re a Rent fan or Rent-curious, it does the job. Fingers crossed “Take Me or Leave Me” becomes the biggest KTV song after this week.

Rent 20th Anniversary Tour will run nightly until Sunday, September 16.

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