By Morgan Pavey
I’ve seen Rent quite a few times, and most productions I’ve seen are honestly pretty similar. Out of devotion to the book, music, and lyrics by the late icon Jonathan Larson, they tend to adhere tightly to the original Broadway production’s choreography and vocal tracks, rendering them prescribed and predictable.
Looking to have a new experience, I was drawn to the promise of Artistic Director Sean Elias’s\ season opener at the Iron Crow Theatre in Baltimore. Self-branded as a “queer theatre for a queer city,” Iron Crow’s website proclaims a core value of “unconventionality.”
What was great about Elias’ production was how he made good on this promise to revitalize. With updated choreography from an active ensemble and new takes on classic songs, I witnessed some truly standout performances. However, the production suffered at times from a lack of energy from some of the performers and serious sound issues.
A quick refresher: Rent unfolds the lives of a chosen family living on the Lower East Side in New York in the late 1990s as they use art, love, and grit to battle the HIV/AIDS crises, drug addiction, and homelessness in a gentrifying landscape. Main players include artist roommates Mark and Roger; their drama-queen ex-roommate Maureen, and her new girlfriend Joanne; their good friend Collins and his newfound love in the artist–drag queen Angel; an apartment-mate–turned–love-interest in wild spirit Mimi Marquez; and their traitorous old friend (turned landlord) Benny.
Upon entering the theater, the set design of Thomas Jenkeleit is striking. The mess of an abandoned warehouse is paired with a NYC subway sign, and a simple smiley face spray-painted on a broken window is a perfect totem of resilient joy amongst chaos. The design provided ample opportunities for the actors to interact with the set and remain onstage throughout the production.
The cast took advantage of this playground in a pre-show that was both loose and choreographed, alternating between the part of actors warming up and morphing seamlessly into group tableaus. It was interesting, inviting, and an early signal that this would be an atypical production.
But it was a particularly snowy night, the house was held, and the actors were left out there for nearly half an hour before we got started. Perhaps due to this extended takeoff, the opening number felt flat and lacking in attack or energy.
This feeling changed dramatically with the onset of the title song, “Rent.” The theater took flight as the cast worked together with heart and purpose. It became quickly clear that the ensemble was capable and focused (with a particularly standout stage presence in ensemble member Sam Slottow). The whole cast felt integrated and stronger together, and present in a way I’ve not seen in productions of Rent before.
Elias’ skillful direction was evident in the way the ensemble would enhance a lyric with a simple sound effect or gesture. Elias also evoked some excellent acting during “Light My Candle,” the number that introduces Roger and Mimi in Act I. Rather than play the humor or the result of the meeting from the beginning, Roger (Carter Crosby) and Mimi (Natalia Fyfe) truthfully played each moment at a time, letting a very clear character narrative develop. By honestly playing Roger’s fear and reticence as well as Mimi’s spontaneity but also her battle with addiction, all the struggles that followed in their relationship arc were believable and supported.
Though the entire cast ranged from vocally strong to vocally stellar, not all performers brought the physical command to match their vocal chops. Angel’s signature number “Today 4 U” has to shoot out of a cannon — an effect that ensemble members Sam Slottow and Tyler White achieved in their fan-voguing dance break, but that Angel, played by Nicolas Miles, fell short of. Clearly a good singer and adept at bringing the much-needed heart to the role of Angel, Miles was nevertheless not quite on top of this number, rushing the tempo and seemingly a little unsure.
This rushing may have been due to some of the sound issues, which continually popped me out of the production. Mics were not always on when it came time to sing, leading to missing lyrics for the audience and a drop in musical energy. Reverb resounded at times, and I wondered if this resulted in performers not always hearing their onstage accompaniment; there were multiple instances of being ahead of the music or wobbling slightly off-key before finding the notes again.
That said, numbers like “Tango: Maureen” hit like a firecracker and brought us right back to life, with Breanne Sensenig’s lights-out vocals on display as Joanne, matched by performer Jeremy Allen Crawford’s dedicated energy and earnest, character-driven wackiness as Mark.
The truly standout performances of the evening came from Collins, played by Terrell Chambers, and Maureen, played by Rachel Cahoon.
Chambers shone as Collins from the second he stepped onstage, with his brilliance on display in Act I’s “Sante Fe.” In Act II, his delivery of “I’ll Cover You: Reprise” was one of the most outstanding performances I think I’ve ever seen — exceptionally sung and truthfully acted; he moved the audience to tears. I’d return to this production just to watch him sing this song again.
As Maureen, Cahoon nailed her “Over the Moon” performance in Act I. Hilarious, dynamic, and decidedly different from versions I’ve seen before, she had me simultaneously laughing out loud while marveling at her vocal prowess and grounded acting. And, between Cahoon as Maureen and Sensenig as Joanne, I don’t think I’ll ever hear Act II’s “Take Me or Leave Me” sung better.
A brief, Maureen-related interlude for all you Rentheads out there: the handling of Maureen in this production was fantastic. Rather than being completely hidden from sight until the wild entrance before “Over the Moon,” Elias incorporates Maureen into the background action as soon as she is referenced by other characters. This allows us to sense her dramatic weight and pull before she ever speaks — which is usually not until the end of the first act…
In a significant change from other productions I’ve seen, Elias decided to move the intermission placement. Rather than awkwardly cutting off Act 1 right before the much-anticipated protest (as is traditionally done), Elias continued to the end of “La Vie Boheme/I Should Tell You,” which is a much more satisfying and sensible stopping point. Plus, we still start Act II with “Seasons of Love” (you can put it anywhere!). It’s a better choice in every way possible and leaves me wondering why anyone would do it otherwise from now on.
Despite some bumps along the way, this production of Rent has moments that you simply should not miss, produced by a company that I am very much looking forward to returning to and supporting in the future. Make sure to check out their website for great supplemental information, and arrive early to the theater to explore the excellent companion art exhibition in the lobby.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
The cast and creative credits are online here.
Book, Music, & Lyric by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Sean Elias
Choreography and Assistant Direction by Quae Simpson
Music Direction by Rachel Sandler
Lighting Design by Thomas P. Gardner
Set Design by Thomas Jenkeleit
Costume Design by Camille Lerner
Sound Design by Brad Ranno
Intimacy Direction by Shawna Potter
Morgan Pavey received her MFA from the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy for Classical Acting in 2020. Although no longer performing, she remains a happy theatergoer and arts advocate. She currently lives in Maryland and splits her working time between hospitality, general contracting, and nonprofit fundraising.