The air was buzzing at the Market Theatre in Anderson as we entered to take our seats. As I took a moment to admire the minimalist set that perfectly complemented this beautifully rustic venue, I knew that we were about to witness something extraordinary. I grabbed my cider and a snack and sat next to my extended family, right there in the front row.
It was precisely that closeness to the action on and around the stage that makes this particular production of Jonathan Larson’s swan song, ‘Rent’, so memorable. I have been a “Rent-head” ever since 1996 when a friend gave me a two-disc Broadway cast recording that forever changed the way that I looked at musical theatre. I saw a production at the Peace Center in Greenville that featured one of the first touring groups. Later on, after it moved off of Broadway, I saw a regional production in North Carolina. It goes without saying that this – director Christopher Rose’s production of ‘Rent’ at the Market Theatre in Anderson, SC – is the finest experience with this particular musical that I have ever had.
For starters, the entire cast is incredible – each actor perfectly suited for every individual role. Noah Taylor is a revelation as the lonely amateur filmmaker, Mark, who bears witness to the pain and sickness all around him, desperately trying to make sense of it all. Tim Spears tears into the role of Roger with a ferocity that is palpable and heartbreaking, and Bre Jeter’s performance as Roger’s love interest, Mimi, compliments his own in unexpected and powerful ways. Of course, “Out Tonight” is a showstopper in and of itself, but it’s the vulnerability that Spears and Jeter exhibit during “I Should Tell You” that stays with you and is carried throughout the rest of the piece.
I have always felt that the heart of ‘Rent’ lies in characters of Tom Collins and Angel Dumott Schunard and their unconditional love, which is so pure and effortless, and flawlessly embodied by Drew Whitley (“Tom”) and Dee Werts (“Angel”). Whitley brings to the stage every ounce of warmth, charm, and playfulness that is required of Tom Collins, and then some. As Angel, Dee Werts is one hell of a force to be reckoned with. They meet every challenge of the role head-on in an interpretation of this beloved character that is both fearless and downright miraculous.
As the characters of Maureen Johnson and Joanne Jefferson, E. Lauren (“Maureen”) and Kelseigh Redmon (“Joanne”) are both spectacular as the on again, off again couple who can’t help but love one another despite their many differences. By the time that the two of them are belting it out at one another during “Take Me Or Leave Me”, you will not be able to take your eyes off of them. Also, E. Lauren’s performance of “Over the Moon” must be seen to be believed! Be prepared to moo.
Every other actor in the supporting company goes above and beyond to move the action along, adding their own unique spark to the proceedings – some of them playing multiple characters. Jonathan “Thor” Raines, Victoria Cox, Kelly Davis, Courtney Dorn, Drake King, Cole Lewis, Mimi Massey, Cierra Moss, Kelly Neal, and Absalon Richardson are all memorable and welcome presences here, as they interact with those in the audience and their fellow actors. When everyone comes together for “La Vie Boheme”, you’ll be tempted to jump in right along with them. It is one of the single most joyous moments in the entire play.
Director Christopher Rose infuses his glorious production of ‘Rent’ with an enormous amount of heart and grace without taking away from or diluting the grittiness that is inherent to the play and which is absolutely necessary. Rose understands ‘Rent’ on a level that feels intensely personal, and he makes no attempt to strip away the power or integrity of this piece. In this way, Christopher Rose is honoring the people who lived full lives, were a very real part of Jonathan Larson’s life, who inspired him to create this great work, and then passed on prematurely during the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic. Any production of ‘Rent’, including this one, is a tribute to those lives, including that of its creator, who passed away suddenly on the very night that ‘Rent’ was to premiere off-Broadway in a preview performance. Knowing the history and the heart behind ‘Rent’, it makes perfect sense that a director such as Christopher Rose, who often gravitates towards subject matter that explores the nature of grace, would be the one to bring ‘Rent’ to this stage, at this time, at this place.
No day but today.
‘Rent’ will be at the Market Theatre in Anderson, SC through November 14th.