Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize– and Tony Award–winning Rent is currently showing at ArtsCentric in Baltimore through August 28. The rock musical, which was loosely based on Puccini’s La Boheme, takes place in the East Village of Manhattan and focuses on a group of eight young people living through poverty and the AIDS crisis of the ’80s. The theme of this crew, struggling with disease, addiction, eviction, and death, is heavy and dark, but cut with moments of levity and love that soften the blow. And the soundtrack has a stream-of-consciousness style that constantly switches between melodies, moods, and interruptions from constant phone calls, reflecting the havoc and constant change that can be real life.
ArtsCentric’s black box theater is extremely intimate and the stage is in the middle of the room, with seating along the front and back walls. Scenic Designer Simean Carpenter and Scenic Designer Assistant Paloma Locsin have created an open and flexible space that serves as multiple locations. There’s a faux wall and a large entry door on one side, with stairs and platforms on either end of the room for levels. Director Kevin S. McAllister designed the movement to be especially immersive, with the seats inches from the stage and interactions with the audience.
Ricardo Blagrove plays independent filmmaker Mark, and Greg Twomey is his roommate Roger. The two have a great energy between them that reflects a true friendship. Blagrove displays the sentiment of a concerned friend, sometimes caretaker, who worries about being left alone when his friends succumb to the AIDs virus that has infected so many of them, including Roger.
Twomey is wonderful as the tortured musician, singing “One Song Glory” where he expresses his fear of dying before he’s able to write a final song to make his mark on the world. Twomey has a strong voice and his fluctuations of emotion as he struggles with his mortality and his desire to live and love are touching.
Kenneth Jamaal Whittington is Mark and Roger’s anarchist and philosophy professor friend Tom Collins. He calls to say he’s surprising them with a visit, but is mugged before he can go in. To his rescue comes the lovely Angel (David Singleton), a drag queen street drummer. The two have an immediate attraction in “You Okay Honey” and realize they both have AIDs. After spending more time together and realizing they’re falling in love, they sing the romantic “I’ll Cover You.” Singleton and Whittington have a lovely chemistry and all of their interactions are genuine and heart-warming to watch. They are the couple that keeps the peace throughout the show and Singleton in particular radiates a confidence and calm that is comforting.
Mimi played by Caelyn D. Williams is the exotic dancer and neighbor who is crushing on Roger. Williams oozes with sexuality, clearly as an attempt to mask the insecure junkie shivering inside. She sings “Light My Candle” with a lonely sadness that seeps through her voice. Then she later tries to seduce Roger in “Take Me Out,”, which he rebukes in “Another Time.” Williams and Twomey fit together quite naturally and their ups and downs slowly build into a relationship that the audience roots for, for both their sakes. Twomey’s big voice mixed with Williams’ softer but determined sound blend nicely together and match the dynamic of their relationship.
Amber Wood plays Maureen, Mark’s ex and girlfriend to lesbian lawyer Joanne (Anitra McKinney). McKinney and Wood have an intense connection and blow the roof off with their powerful voices in their confrontational “Take Me or Leave Me.”
And Quincy Vicks plays Mark and Roger’s old roommate/friend turned stingy landlord, Benny. Vicks conveys the sleazy real estate broker vibe a little too well and is instantly unlikable as the antagonist of the show.
The network of relationships interlaces and evolves quickly throughout the musical. Rent has several different plot lines going at once and the focus bounces between them at a rapid rate. But the cast does a wonderful job with the controlled chaos and the pace of the show is quick but never manic.
And the music is passionate and uplifting. “Seasons of Love” and the reprise of “I’ll Cover You” are particularly moving. Respect to Music Directors JoyAnne Richardson and Jae Anthonee for their work. The ensemble (Justin Burley, Candace Foreman, Amber Gibson, Jordan Clark Halsey, Terrell Kellam, Fela Langston, Shelbi Nelson, Otega Okurume), playing numerous roles, bolster these numbers and the power of their combined voices gave me chills.
My only criticism would be the sound quality. There were times when the actors could not be heard over the music and crucial lyrics were lost. Blagrove, Vicks, and Williams specifically were often swallowed in the sound.
But the overall production was a great experience. There are many highlights, like Wood’s Maureen singing her protest performance, “Hey Diddle Diddle.” The number is quirky and artsy but also sensual and compelling. McKinney and Blagrove are parts funny and bitter in “Tango: Maureen,” commiserating over the frustrations of dating Maureen. And Collins’ reprise of “I’ll Cover You” is devastatingly beautiful.
Shout-out to Singleton, who slays as Angel and has numerous show-stopping moments — my favorite being her first appearance in drag in a killer, sexy, skin-tight Santa outfit, dancing and singing in “Today 4 U.” Kudos to Choreographer Shalyce “Shea” Hemby and Assistant Choreographer Antonio Beverly for those jaw-dropping moves and Deana Cruz-Conner for costume design.
Rent shows us a deep look into the damage the AIDS pandemic did in the ’80s, and highlights wealth disparity and the lack of true support for people who are just trying to survive. ArtsCentric’s production features a talented cast who bring Jonathan Larson’s rock musical to life in their immersive space, and sing with their full heart and soul.
Rent is not a feel-good show. But it is full of love and truth and the reality of the toll addiction and disease can have. The individual journeys that the characters take are true to life, which makes for personal connections and the show’s resilient relatability.
Running Time: Approximately two hours 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Rent plays through August 28, 2022, at ArtsCentric, 2600 North Howard Street, Baltimore, MD. Tickets ($50, $40, and $25) are available online or at the box office, which opens two hours before showtime.
The Rent program is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are required in the theater.
CAST: Roger- Greg Twomey, Mark- Ricardo Blagrove, Mimi- Caelyn D. Williams, Angel- David Singleton, Tom Collins- Kenneth Jamaal Whittington, Benny- Quincy Vicks, Joanne- Anitra McKinney, Maureen- Amber Wood, Ensemble (various roles)-Justin Burley, Candace Foreman, Amber Gibson, Jordan Clark Halsey, Terrell Kellam, Fela Langston, Shelbi Nelson, Otega Okurume
UNDERSTUDIES: Justin Burley for Mark; Terrell Kellam for Angel; Amber Gibson for Maureen; Fela Langton & Shelbi Nelson for Joanne; Quincy Vicks for Collins
CREATIVE TEAM: Director- Kevin S. McAllister, Music Supervisor- Cedric D. Lyles, Music Directors- JoyAnne Richardson & Jae Anthonee, Choreographer- Shalyce “Shea” Hemby, Assistant Choreographer- Antonio Beverly
MUSICIANS: Conductors- Jae Anthonee and JoyAnne Richardson, Keys 1-Yilin Chi, Guitar- Nick Jewitt/Todd Wildason, Bass- Dolorean Fullington/Michael Kellam, Percussion- Tarek Mohamed
PRODUCTION TEAM: Jordan Ross- Stage Manager, Robert Poole- Assistant Stage Manager, Taeja Moffit- Deck Chief, Michael Vincent- Technical Director, Simean Carpenter- Scenic Designer, Paloma Locsin- Scenic Designer Assistant, Fred Via- Scenic Painter, Zavier Taylor- Projection Designer, Deana Cruz-Conner- Costume Designer, Amy Kellett- Props Designer, Keith Person- Sound Designer, Tyrell Stanley- Lighting Designer, Nathan Scavilla- Band Manager