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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Laberge

RENT - Looks like New York, feels like Waukesha

Following the critical success of the film adaptation of tick, tick... BOOM!, the world has fallen in love with Jonathan Larson's work. With that came the perfect opportunity to bring his best known piece, RENT, to new audiences at Waukesha Civic Theatre. The show runs through March 26th.

The cast of RENT. All photos courtesy of Anne Kenny Creatives.

When doing a cult classic, it can become easy to slip into the footsteps of designers and performers who came before you. It is through those who make deliberate choices outside their forerunners who particularly shine in this production. Costumer Margot Lange captures the essence and key elements of the core cast while bringing added statement pieces, such as Roger's glitzy jacket. The ensemble, while presented with perhaps more crispness than accurately represents the unhoused, is filled with a delightful amount of texture - crushed velvet, flannel, knits, and more.

Talent abounds on the Civic stage. Music director Ashley Sprangers leads a five piece band through complex rock orchestrations. The ensemble is chock full of standouts; from disgruntled New Yorkers Danny Slattery, Chase Gilbertson, and Zach Rolf to the powerful soloists Aidan Black, Kiera Jenkins, and Gina Digieso. Their performances are both stylized and impressive.

Ernest Bell has a voice to be reckoned with. Tom Collins is often played as the low voice to ground his airy partner, Angel. Bell delivers all that, and more. His tone is rich and full when filling out the bassline, then slips easily into the clouds for a multi-octave range. This gives space for unique choices in the music and a one-of-a-kind performance of the showstopper, "I'll Cover You (Reprise)".

Keegan Charlier's Maureen contrasts all those who came before her. Rather than boiling the role down to her scripted promiscuity, her performance far better fits the woman who will moo in protest: this Maureen is a dork. This humanizing of the role alone helps dissipate the biphobic tropes in her text. Not to mention - this girl can sing! Charlier's natural raspiness makes the difficult range of the role sound effortless.

The cast of RENT, featuring Justin Spanbauer as Roger.

Famously, RENT follows the back-and-forth lovers Roger and Mimi as their past traumas clash against one another. Justin Spanbauer's Roger maintains the beloved rock edge to his vocals, but approaches the role itself with considerable tenderness. An ounce of silliness here and a crack in the hard exterior there reveal a man capable of bringing down old walls brick-by-brick.

Despite these many talents, the production is a little afraid to get ugly. Moments of intimacy are nearly all reduced or removed. Acts of violence are minuscule. The choice to have most songs blocked and delivered presentationally for the audience rather than authentically between characters brings a musical revue tone to key opportunities for character connection and vulnerability, which then removes the foundation for climactic moments near the finale. Ami Majeskie's direction tells a story that may be most palatable to Waukesha audiences, but misses the opportunity to impact those audiences with the genuine struggles of queer and unhoused people during the AIDS crisis.

In an age where Trans* individuals are being legally forced back into the closet across the country and queer health is yet again put in peril, the year 2023 demands RENT be presented with urgency. As goes for all period pieces, the impact is most lingering when audiences see the parallels between that world and their own. For those who love RENT for Jonathan Larson's music and the grungy aesthetics, this production will be a delight. It looks good, and it sounds even better. For those expecting a raw exploration of its themes, this might not deliver.

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