Durham, N.C. — "Rent," a rock musical set in New York City's East Village in the late 1980s/early 1990s amidst the HIV epidemic, is truly timeless. Celebrating its 20th touring year, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning show's themes and overall focus of acceptance and unconditional love for one another are as relevant today as when the show premiered off-Broadway in 1996.
For the first time in a decade, "Rent" is playing Durham Performing Arts Center. Shows run through Sunday. I checked it out Tuesday night.
The show marks the return of Durham native and Shaw graduate Aaron Harrington to the Bull City. Harrington plays Tom Collins, an HIV-positive professor who falls for a transgender woman named Angel. Harrington's strong performance, especially opposite David Merino's Angel, is something to behold. His vocal abilities are also unparalleled.
Collins is part of a trio of struggling artist friends - rounded out by Mark Cohen (played by Danny Kornfeld) and Roger Davis (played by Kaleb Wells). Mark, a filmmaker, is our narrator through a year in the lives of this group of friends. Roger, who recently found out his he is HIV-positive through a suicide note his girlfriend left, is struggling to write "one last great song" before he dies. Mark and Roger are struggling to pay rent on their apartment, which is owned by former friend Benny (played by Christian Thompson) and his wife. Benny offers Mark and Roger a lifeline - telling them they can remain rent-free if they get Mark's ex-girlfriend Maureen to cancel her upcoming protest at a nearby lot where Benny plans to build a cyber arts studio. The lot is currently occupied by the homeless.
The moments between Mark and Roger are particularly touching. Their dynamic is so effortless, which is a testament to Kornfeld and Wells' chemistry.
Kornfeld is a great guide into Mark's emotional state - having recently been dumped by Maureen (played by the powerhouse Katie LaMark) for Joanne (played by Jasmine Easler). Mark and Joanne's unlikely friendship and duet of "Tango Maureen" really helped build up to Maureen's eventual entrance more than half way through the first act.
Maureen was probably one of my favorite characters in the show. She is outspoken, funny and has a personality that cannot be contained - to the chagrin of her girlfriend. Her spoken word performance of "Over the Moon" had the audience "mooing" along.
Roger gets his own love interest in wild child exotic dancer Mimi (played by Skyler Volpe). Mimi and Roger's "Light My Candle" duet is definitely a highlight of the show. Their tango of truths in "I Should Tell You" showcases the pain both characters are experiencing.
Ask anyone who their favorite character in "Rent" is and most people will probably tell you it's Angel. The minute Merino hit the stage in full drag, audiences roared. Angel is full of love, happiness and fun. She teaches each of the characters a lesson about themselves.
There isn't a weak link in the entire cast. That is really evident when the cast launches into the production's signature song, "Seasons of Love." While it is incredibly powerful, that isn't the only show-stopper. I defy you not cry during Harrington's heart wrenching "I'll Cover You" in the second act. After the show, Harrington said he was crying on stage as well, moved to be standing in front of his hometown crowd.
While "Rent's" wardrobe is dated, the message is still clear. How do you measure a year? Through friends, relationships and love.