Since its debut on Broadway in the mid-90s, Rent has become one of the most popular and well-loved musicals in the world. It’s spawned a film, influenced countless other plays and musicals, and developed a cult following of fans. Rent’s large-scale productions have become so popular that the heart of the show — a story about friends struggling to change the world while living with AIDS — tends to get lost. The Station Theatre’s production of Rent brings this central message to the forefront, bolstered by strong performances and original, creative staging.
Rent follows a group of young adults living in New York’s East Village at the height of the AIDS epidemic, including filmmaker Mark (Corbin Dixon), musician Roger (Michael Steen), drag queen drummer Angel (Sidney Germaine Hastings), and exotic dancer Mimi (Marah Sotelo). They live in run-down apartments with no heat, and have hardly any money for food, but love living la vie bohème regardless. They deal with heartbreak, illness, and tragedy, but remain strong and hopeful.
I’ve seen Rent several times, and nearly wore out my copy of the soundtrack when I was in college. I’d never seen a production like the Station’s, though, in such a small space and with very different staging than that of the original Broadway show. I think that some productions are fearful of changing up any aspects of the original show, but I was happy to see that director Mikel Matthews took some risks and tried some new interpretations with the material.
While all of the lead characters were strong, there were definitely a few standouts. As Mark, Corbin Dixon (above, right) does a great job of narrating the story and bringing all of the characters and their stories together. Sidney Germaine Hastings brought Angel to life beautifully — he’s small and adorable and makes you love the character. He and Collins (played by Andrew James Haas) were absolutely adorable in the song “I’ll Cover You.”
Andrew James Haas (Collins) and Sidney Germaine Hastings (Angel)
But my favorite was Malia Andrus as performance artist Maureen (below, left). She absolutely killed it in “Over the Moon,” belting out the song better than I’ve heard some professional actresses sing it. That scene, involving mooing, Mickey Mouse ears, and creative use of Diet Coke cans, was my favorite in the whole production.
The entire cast worked well together, especially on the larger numbers like “Rent” and “Christmas Bells.” Their voices blended well and, thanks to being in such a small space, I could hear emotion in each of the songs. During the most heartbreaking scene of the show, crying was heard in the room, and several actors were visibly upset. The cast and audience connected in this scene, which is something that really couldn’t be done in a larger theater.
The show wasn’t without its flaws — the sound of the band overwhelmed some of the singers — making it difficult to hear some of them, especially in the last row. I love the character Roger, and Steen gave a solid performance, but it’s not an easy role to play and the character seemed a bit over-the-top at times in this production. And while I enjoyed Stephanie Hopkins as Maureen’s girlfriend Joanne, Andrus’ voice drowned out Hopkins in the duet “Take Me Or Leave Me.”
Marah Sotelo (Mimi) and Michael Steen (Roger)
But overall, I loved the production and highly recommend it. It’s a show that’s just as important and powerful now as it was when it debuted. AIDS is still an epidemic, and the poor and homeless are still rejected by society. Yet Rent’s core message of love and hope rises above these sad facts. Before the show’s most iconic song, “Seasons of Love,” the cast was talking, laughing, and hugging, emphasizing the love and friendship between the characters. The show reminds all of us that despite all the hardships we might go through, we must measure our lives in love, and there is no day but today.
Photo of Malia Andrus by Andrew James Haas. All other photos by Eric Ponder. To see more photos from this play check out our Facebook page.