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REVIEW: "RENT" — Cupcake Theater @ Hollywood Majestic

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

It's odd to have joined the generations that talk about what "the young" are doing, saying and going through these days, and how that is reflected in art and entertainment. It always is when you're part of a subculture that slowly eases into mass culture. When Broadway introduced the musical “Rent,” the rock opera of the 90’s, it was a cultural shock to many mainstreamers.

So I wonder what today's counterculture young think now of this portrait of avant-garde experimentation and rock-bottom desperation from the Lower East Side of New York? This montage of performance artists, abandoned buildings, upwardly mobile landlords, film makers, rock-and-roll bands, homeless people and drug addicts who bandies free-thinking, free-form multiculturalism, bisexuality, safe sex, and even open-hearted exhilaration in the face of death and H.I.V.

I think "Rent" is a lot of things: brash, brilliant, sweet, canny — just messy enough to make you crazy at times, but also rich enough to send you home believing you've experienced some kind of a catharsis. As directed at Cupcake Theater by Brayden Hade, this “Rent” reminds me that the one-word title has double meaning. Sure, the landlord wants his former roommates to pay up or get out. But rent also means tearing things apart, including lives and relationships.

Jonathan Larson, the 35-year-old composer and librettist of "Rent," was absolutely right to choose Puccini's 1896 "Boheme" as the foundation for his 1996 homage to artists, rebels and outsiders. This lavishly romantic, melodic work is as close to pop culture as opera gets. Like Puccini's heroine, Mimi, Mr. Larson died as the opera ended: he watched the last dress rehearsal on Jan. 24 and was dead of an aortic aneurysm hours later.

But his swan song effort has turned Puccini's band of expansive, Italian-speaking French rebels into high-strung East Village Americans who talk every kind of slang (nerd slang, soul slang, Nuyorican slang, gay slang, college-girl and street-girl slang). Now the rebel artists are led by Roger Davis, Mark Cohen and Tom Collins. They are a songwriter, a film maker and a computer guru, expertly played by (all the roles are double-booked) Nicholas Teixera/Jeff Blim as Roger, Jewell Valentin/Dalton Weaver as Mark, and Tristan J. Schuler/Jaquan Solomon as Tom, with proper, sullen charm, forthright savvy and wry bravado.

Roger and Tom are H.I.V. positive; so are their respective lovers, Mimi Marquez (Natalie Luna/Kyra Waters ) and Angel Schunard (Kevin Corte/Nikk Alcaraz) a street drummer and drag queen whose character contains the insouciance that the Artist Formerly Known as Prince had when he first became known as Prince.

Musetta, the vamp-coquette to whom Puccini gave a heart of gold plus one of the loveliest waltzes yet written (its opening notes find their way into Roger's guitar riffs), has become a chic Maureen Johnson (Joelle Tshudy/Renée Cohen). Maureen does protest-performance art, struts like Sandra Bernhard and hits raspy high notes like Janis Joplin. Maureen has thrown Mark over for Joanne Jefferson (Virginia Vass/ Amber France), a lapsed Ivy Leaguer and Talented Tenther who practices civil liberties law when she's not filming Maureen's performances and having vehement lovers' quarrels with her.

But most of the lovers are incessantly quarreling here, with each other and with their acquisitive landlord, Benny, or rather Benjamin Coffin III (Trae Adair/ Lionel Ruff), who was once their penniless cohort. They are also quarreling with the fact that death is never far away.

They move through Brayden Hade's industrial landscape of a set, minimally serving as a street or abandoned building, sometimes a café. Surrounding them is a polyglot band of street people, vendors, inquiring parents and prospective employers (played also by the same eight performers).

And how well they wear their grunge-meets-salsa-meets-B-Boy-meets-Riot-Grrrl-clothes: plaid pants, plastic pants, leathers, fishnet pantyhose, jeans, layered tops, slip dresses, denim, knee-high boots, and caps of various kinds, with much credit to the costume designer, Annie Claire Hudson.

The ingenuity and dexterity of Mr. Larson's rock-pop score, translated with loving skill by Dylan Price's onstage band, are very evident, and begs to be danced to. Exempli gratia, Choreographer Amy Morgan brings such wit and verve to the first-act finale (the banquet number, "La Vie ­­­­Boheme") that you feel frustrated that it's the only thing approaching an ensemble dance number.

Mark and Joanne’s face-off in “Tango: Maureen” was a rousing, standout number. There is not one weak link in the casting, but Collins’ brave optimism soars in the daydream of “Sante Fe” while Angel flawlessly busts moves in heels, bringing much-needed energy to a doom-and-gloom story. Despite their battle with HIV/AIDS, the pair is desperate for love and life. Their chemistry is easily the most believable, and 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.

With its top-flight cast pumping the theater full of emotional adrenaline, the performers painted very intense presences, so much so that they seemed to be almost embracing you. Director Hade has framed his show's surrogate family of fringe artists, drag queens and H.I.V.-infected drug users with such rich affection and compassion that it is impossible not to care about them, lifting "Rent" ultimately to the same sentimentality as a "Carousel" or "South Pacific," and the splendid cast members make no apologies about this.

They're as gritty-seeming as they should be, but they also beam with the good will and against-the-odds optimism that is at the heart of the American musical. In fact, what makes "Rent" so wonderful is not its hipness quotient, but its extraordinary spirit of hopeful defiance and humanity.

Roger, with his effortless-seeming radiance and shimmering sensuality, is ideally complemented by the more shadowy eroticism of Mimi, who gives off a transfixing blend of street swagger and mortal fragility. The couple's moonlit duet, "Light My Candle" is one of the show's most romantic centerpieces.

Mark, the self-styled experimental auteur at war with his own defensive detachment, is the production's energetic engine. At one point, when Mark, who worries about prostituting his talent after taking a job with a tabloid television show, asks, "How did I get here?" he might be speaking for the entire "Rent" team. The answer, above all, is an original talent, a flame of youth, and a winningly accessible and ground-breaking musical formula that combines rock's drive, pop's memory-grabbing melodiousness and the leitmotifs and harmonic counterpoints of opera. And when the whole ensemble sings of making the most of limited time in "Seasons of Love," the heart still melts and the eyes still mist.

“RENT,” with book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson; directed by Brayden Hade; choreography by Amy Morgan; sets/projections by Brayden Hade; musically directed by Dylan Price; costumes/wardrobe design Annie Claire Hudson; lighting by James G Smith III; sound by Marcos Rodriguez; props by Nikk Alcaraz. Presented by Cupcake Theater @ Hollywood Majestic, 671 N Berendo St., Los Angeles, CA 90004.

ORCHESTRA: Greg Niemi, Sean Knapp, Dylan Price, Michael Paik.

WITH: Nicholas Teixera/ Jeff Blim (Roger Davis/The Man), Jewell Valentin/ Dalton Weaver (Mark Cohen/Gordon), Natalie Luna/ Kyra Waters (Mimi Marquez/Alexi Darling), Tristan J Schuler/ Jaquan Solomon (Tom Collins/Mr. Jefferson), Joelle Tshudy/ Renée Cohen (Maureen Johnson/Mrs. Cohen), Kevin Corte/ Nikk Alcaraz (Angel Schunard/Restaurant Man), Virginia Vass/Amber France (Joanne Jefferson/Pam), Trae Adair/ Lionel Ruff (Benjamin Coffin III/Paul). SWINGS: Annie Claire Hudson, Caleb Rogers, Amaya J, Kevin Stafford.

Although “Rent” has temporarily closed at the Cupcake Theater venue, and tickets are no longer available, watch for further announcements for an alternate venue for this production soon.

Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report

Photo Credits: Brayden Hade


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