With book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, RENT is loosely based on Puccini’s 1896 opera “La Boheme.” But it also contains many personal experiences drawn from author Larson’s life as an impoverished, struggling artist in New York City’s East Village. In fact, some real New York locations even became part of the show – for example, the Life Café which closed in 2013. In 1989, the 29-year-old Larson began collaborating on the project – a project that resulted in the eventual production of RENT, which opened in 1996 off-Broadway. Sadly, Larson never got to appreciate his hard-won success. The night before the premiere, he died suddenly of aortic dissection, possibly a complication of undiagnosed Marfan syndrome. The dramatic story behind RENT was documented in the 2021 film, “Tick, Tick…Boom!” Later in 1996, the production moved from off-Broadway to Broadway, where it ran for 12 years, making it one of Broadway’s longest-running shows. Clearly, something in RENT resonated with theater goers worldwide.
Garrett LaSource and Delaney Holliday – Photo by Gloria Plunkett
RENT is set in 1980s Manhattan and tells the story of a group of poor young artists struggling to survive and create in New York’s East Village, a place where the bohemian lifestyle was revered, a place where drug and sexual exploration and experimentation were pursued – and just at the cusp of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The tale follows the diverse cast through their daily struggles, their transient lovers, their creative battles – all observed (and even filmed) by the “author” of the story. We have Roger (Garrett LaSource), an aimless musician alternating between creation and desolation, and his erstwhile love for Mimi (brilliantly played during the performance which I saw by understudy Jayla Bryant), a woman who is trying (and failing miserably) to escape the monkey on her back. Then there are the friendships and intermittent sexual forays between gay, transgender, and arguably uncertain denizens of this striving crowd.
Emilie Mirvis and Jalana Phillips – Photo by Gloria Plunkett
Skillfully directed and choreographed by Marcus S. Daniel – with musical direction by Gabrielle Maldonado – RENT outdid any expectations and preconceptions concerning community theater productions. The Kentwood Players production of RENT was carefully planned and professionally executed. The talented cast (who also had creditable vocal and terpsichorean skills) included Kit DeZolt (Angel), Micah K. Blanks (Benny), Donald Riddle (Collins), Jalana Phillips (Joanne), Logan Rice (Mark), and Emilie Mirvis (Maureen). Special kudos to understudy Jayla Bryant, who displayed strong acting and musical chops as she filled in for an Ill Delaney Holliday.
Kit DeZolt and Donald Riddle – Photo by Gloria Plunkett
Master builder Shawn Summerer’s set design is perfect, and Michael Mullen’s costumes are eye-catching and very 1980s. Michael Tovar’s lighting and Michael Thorpe’s sound added to the overall excellence of the presentation. RENT is a fascinating study of attitudes, values, and angst in the 1980s performed with rock opera verve and vigor. Both from a historical perspective and from an inside look at society’s children of the era, RENT shines.
Cast of RENT – Photo by Gloria Plunkett
RENT runs through June 17, 2023, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Beginning May 20, 2023, Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. will be added. The Westchester Playhouse is located at 8301 Hindry Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90045. Tickets are $30 ($4 discount for seniors and students). For information and reservations, call 310-645-5156 or go online.