Thinking back to the AIDS-plagued days of the 1980s, New York musician and budding playwright Jonathan Larson conceived the idea for a stage work the likes of which had never before been presented on Broadway.
The idea: make the impoverished outcasts and homeless of his day the characters of a play that would cast light on their shadow world and bring them to life with a rock and pop musical.
The creative challenge of such an undertaking would frighten away the less talented, but the multi-talented Larson was equal to the task. He not only wrote it, he wrote it all—book, music and lyrics. The plan then was to present his work off Broadway to see if it could attract audiences and muster favorable reviews. If “Rent” could attract both, would it be ready to hit the big time?
Larson created a large, diverse cast of characters–artists and musicians, playboys and playgirls, AIDS victims and addicts, sweethearts and scoundrels, and a few members of what today we tend to classify with the alphabetical scramble of LGBTQ. These diverse souls are united in the struggle to survive, to find a meaning for their lives and, if possible, a meaningful other in life.
Larson gave this motley bunch a home in a comfortless loft on the wrong side of New York City, a cheerless space that reflected their collective inability to come up with the rent. Among them was an aspiring filmmaker working to capture their lifestyle (if you could call it that) whom we see as the play opens. Moving among the occupants of the loft, his intent is to bring their story to life. The stories that emerge are set to music from toe-tapping rock to songs of love, loss and longing. .
Everything was in place to test the appeal of “Rent” with audiences. But when “Rent” premiered in 1996, Larson was unable to attend. He had died suddenly the day before of an undiagnosed heart ailment, at the age of 35. His posthumous success came when his show drew crowds, filled the house, and ultimately moved up to Broadway in 2006, where it ran 12 years, winning a Tony award and Pulitzer Prize.
“Rent” has now been adapted for local audiences by the Stockton Civic Theatre and will be presented in August by the Sacramento’s Broadway at Music Circus.
Today, with the menace of AIDS replaced by the menace of Covid and increasing numbers of the homeless visible throughout American cities, the play has gained fresh perspective, dealing as it does with related questions of identity, anxiety, and what it means to belong–or not belong–in modern America.
It’s an ambitious undertaking by director Dennis Beasley, music director Amy Dahlstrom, choreographer James Reed, 22 cast members and a dedicated crew, but their combined talents succeed in bringing us a memorable production, a vivid sense of Larson’s innovative talents and proof that more than a quarter century after its debut, “Rent” has met the test of time, giving new meaning to the current era of diversity and inclusion.
Keep your eyes open and your applause ready for performances such as Kahlan Gentry’s lively Mimi Marquez and Cheyenne Wells as performance artist Maureen Johnson, Cole Bryant’s Tom Collins, Gavin Self’s Angel, Joanne Jefferson and Mrs. Jefferson (Jessica Spencer and Leiyah Russell), filmmaker Mark Cohen (Brogan Keene) and film subject Roger Davis (Anthony Allen).
Memorable songs abound here and it will be easy for you to pick your favorites. Mine included “Another Day.” “Over the Moon,” “I Should Tell You,” “A Happy New Year” and “Take Me or Leave Me.”
Not to give the plot away, but be prepared for a few wholly unexpected surprises including holiday festivities, a tango party (with dancing tangonistas Mark and Joanne) and a finale which provides hope to the denizens of the loft by celebrating the power of love to defy mortality.
Admittedly, this is not a play for everyone (better to leave the kids and grumps at home). But the energy and originality of this production will offer many a new dimension of musical theatre, another welcome demonstration of local performers giving it their all, and a salute to the craft and courage of the playwright.
As usual, the good-humored toastmaster of the Stockton Civic has come up with a beverage for playgoers that pays tribute to the current production. The Tango Maureen is a passion fruit vodka in the spirit of the play that combines a triple-header of P.O.G. (pineapple, orange and guava juice), with strawberry syrup and lemon lime soda, topped with a rock candy stick ideal for stirring. Use yours to toast the man who ran all the risks and took all the chances and didn’t live to see his success.
Here’s to you, Jonathan Larson.
Performances: Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinee at 2:30 p.m. Final performance July 9.
Prices: Adults $31.. Seniors $26. Students $18.
Information: SCT box office (209) 474-2424.
Business office: (209) 473-2400.
A retired reporter and editor, Stockton resident Howard Lachtman has written Delta-centered detective stories, Stockton Civic Theatre reviews and a variety of baseball tales for Soundings. In 2006. he was honored by the Stockton Arts Commission for “24 years of superior review and commentary on the performing and literary arts in Stockton.”