Several seasons have come and gone since Signature’s last in-person performances, and “Rent”—with its themes of love, community and hope—is a fitting production for the Arlington company to welcome back audiences after a long pandemic-induced hiatus. It also marks a new chapter for the theater, with the musical’s director Matthew Gardiner as artistic director.
With Gardiner at the helm, Signature breathes new life into this iconic piece of musical theater and offers a more intimate reimagining of the beloved work. Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking pop–rock musical shook up the theater world 25 years ago with his modern take on Puccini’s opera classic “La Bohème,” transferring the group of struggling artists from Paris’ Latin Quarter to New York City’s East Village. “Rent” had its final performances on Broadway in 2008, with touring productions occasionally passing through the National Theatre in D.C. (another stint is slated for March 2022). FOX even gave it the live-TV treatment a few years back.
However, with Signature’s in-your-face version, you’re not only watching the show, you almost feel like a part of it.
The musical’s immersive staging allows audiences to experience the joys and heartbreak of these young bohemians up close, as they discover new love, stand up for others, pursue their passions without selling out or write that one great song—all while grappling with HIV/AIDS, poverty, eviction and drug addiction.
Signature Theatre assembled a top-notch cast to share the stories of rocker Roger and teenage addict Mimi, the easygoing teacher Collins and kind-hearted drag queen Angel, performance artist Maureen and her lawyer girlfriend Joanne, and aspiring filmmaker Mark.
A grunged-up Vincent Kempski brings a softer side to the emotionally detached Roger, while a magnetic Arianna Rosario lights up the stage as Mimi, who’s desperately trying to get him to embrace life. As Angel and Collins, David Merino and Josh A. Dawson bring much heart to the story, with a love so pure and strong it inspires the others. Katie Mariko Murray and Ines Nassara, both powerhouse vocalists, are fantastic as a constantly combative couple: “Take Me or Leave Me” is a show highlight.
The musical is packed with memorable songs, all performed enthusiastically by a tight five-piece band, from the supercharged title song to the soaring “No Day But Today” closer. Merino and Dawson’s tender rendition of “I’ll Cover You,” along with Rosario and Kempski’s heart-wrenching performance of “Without You,” add to the show’s emotional punches.
Masks are required in this new theatergoing reality, and they serve a double purpose by covering up any ugly-crying in the room. “Rent” is one of those musicals that has the power to do that.
In Paige Hathaway’s vibrant, industrial scenic design, no space goes untouched. Protest posters hang from the upper railings, concert flyers for punk bands like Bad Brains litter the walkways, and ensemble members crank out Rickey Tripp’s energetic, lightning-fast choreography just steps away from the front seats.
Costume designer Erik Teague’s outfits perfectly capture the late 1980s–early 1990s looks, with flannel shirts, varsity V-neck sweaters and tees bearing artwork by Keith Haring and Jean–Michel Basquiat. Roger’s jean jacket is covered with Nine Inch Nails and Metallica patches.
“Rent” may be steeped in nostalgia, but the musical’s message—a searing reminder to love and live life to the fullest—remains timeless. Coming together after months apart, the cast and crew of Signature’s “Rent” has delivered a show high on euphoria. When the cast launches into “Seasons of Love,” you feel the joy and warmth emanating from the stage—especially in these cozy quarters.