Dominion Stage takes to heart the heartbreaking power of ‘Rent’

The musical's lasting relevance is delivered with passion and excellence.

Dominion Stage is currently performing Jonathan Larson’s heartbreakingly gritty and raw 1996 musical Rent. Inspired by Puccini’s famous opera La bohème, Rent presents a year in the life of a group of friends, living as struggling artists in Lower Manhattan’s East Village, while dealing with poverty, drug addiction, and the ongoing AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

Stella Monshaw served as musical director for Larson’s rock-opera score, full of swelling harmonies, poetic lyrics, banger riffs, and biting bits of levity to soften the blow of the pain and turmoil our bohemians endure.

Brandon Schenk with (back row:) Anna Marquardt, Jason Phuah, Garrett Walsh, Paul Pesnell; (front row:) Aja Goode, Maria Valdisera, Camryn Powers, in ‘Rent.’ Photo by Brian Knapp.

The set, designed by Bill Brown, is appropriately minimal with platforms and stairs for varied levels, plus metal tables, a large trash bin, and other pieces that move to suit the scene, successfully conveying the vibe of a New York City aesthetic.

Along the back wall of the small black box theater is a screen projecting a background of blocks of brownstones, littered with fire escapes, and overlooking the city street. Jon Roberts designed the special effects and projections, which at poignant moments during the show turn into a slideshow of imagery of the sick languishing in hospital beds, with their loved ones clinging to them, or couples poised on a bedside, with weak bodies, embracing, and many images of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, stretched across the National Mall in Washington, DC. The imagery is visceral and triggering, while also being a comforting reminder to the audience of the outpouring of love and compassion from millions of people during a painful period of history.

Director Jason Damaso shares his connection to the piece in his program note:

When I saw RENT, I expected to see just the glamorous and romantic part. That is how that bohemian lifestyle had always been portrayed in the past in movies and theater. I was anticipating a 90’s version of Hair. But RENT was not like that at all. RENT was REAL. RENT put everything out there on stage for people to see. Raw. In your face. Unfiltered. Unapologetic.

And that imagery carries through into this production.

TOP LEFT: Anthony Galace as Benjamin; TOP RIGHT: Jennifer Soraya Rose as Mimi, Preston Grover as Roger; ABOVE LEFT: Muggs Leone as Angel, Brandon Schenk as Tom Collins; ABOVE RIGHT: Jasmine Jones as Joanne, in ‘Rent.’ Photos by Brian Knapp.

Zach Kessel plays Mark, the aspiring filmmaker with a longing to create but struggling with finding his message. He leads the cast in the first big number, and the show’s namesake, “Rent,” railing against the harshness of a society led by money when people are simply struggling to survive. Mark is always looking for a way out.

His friend and roommate Roger, played by Preston Grover, is a musician desperate to compose one final song that will bring meaning to his life. Grover sings the passionate “One Song Glory” with aching despair.

Kessel and Grover display the contrast of their characters well, with Mark being the more hopeful and Roger wallowing in anguish. Grover does an excellent job navigating the very real conflict of a young man dealing with AIDS, learning how to balance the weight of a dark diagnosis with a desire to create something that will live beyond him.

The group’s once roommate and now landlord, Benny, is played by Anthony Galace. Galace portrays the sometime villain, battling with his own hypocrisy and contradictions of wanting to help his friends but needing to meet the expectations of his new in-laws and wife. He is the everyday, relatable man, just trying to appease society’s standards of success and fortune, while slowly losing himself.

Brandon Schenk is great as Tom Collins, a professor and another former roommate. Schenk has a powerful physical and compassionate presence and watching him evolve through the arc of his story is, though gut-wrenching, inspirational.

Playing Collins’ love interest, Angel, is Muggs Leone. Having found an injured Collins and tended to his wounds, the two kindle an immediate and genuine connection that serves as a ray of light throughout the musical. Schenk and Leone together have great chemistry and their scenes are full of love and joy.

Collins brings Angel into the apartment to meet the group and brightens the room with Christmas spirit, singing “Today 4 U” in a sexy Santa ensemble (shoutout to Costume Designer Larissa Norris). Leone embodies the free-spirited vibrancy of Angel, which immediately endears her to every one of Collin’s friends (and the audience). Ivan Davila’s fabulous choreographer has Leone dancing on the table and death-dropping to the floor, with incredible flair and a knowing smile.

Mimi Marquez (Jennifer Soraya Rose) adds her own vivaciousness to the group as the wild and untamable neighbor to Roger and Mark. Rose’s Mimi is seductive and always putting on a show, trying to disguise her struggle with addiction and illness. Roger and Mimi have a clear romantic connection, playfully illustrated in “Light My Candle.” But Rose’s Mimi especially shines in “Out Tonight” as she swings on the scaffolding and entices Grover’s Roger with howling-like vocals begging him to take her “Owooot” tonight. Rose masters the complexity of Mimi’s character; she is tragically lonely and drowning but masks it with intoxicating energy and temptation.

Playing Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen is Thea Simpson. Maureen is planning a protest to protect the homeless camp in the neighborhood, which sounds altruistic, until the scene is upon us and Simpson’s confident Maureen is performing an over-the-top adaptation of “Hey, Diddle Diddle” called “Over the Moon.” Complete with cow print and a large bell, the number is hilariously entertaining as Maureen mocks the system in her avant-gard number.

Maureen loves being the center of attention, an issue her new girlfriend Joanne (Jasmine Jones) struggles with. Jones portrays the spinning plates of Joanne’s life with accuracy in the ironic “We’re Okay,” as she manages a constant barrage of calls from her parents, Maureen, and work at once. Her performance is perfectly relatable as she is clearly about to explode, meanwhile insisting adamantly that she has it all under control. We have all been there.

There was also an ensemble of eight actors (Aja Goode, Ryan Karg, Anna Marquardt, Paul Pesnell, Jayson Phuah, Camryn Powers, Maria Valdisera, and Garrett Walsh) covering the remaining other roles. Anna Marquardt is hilarious as Mrs. Cohen, the quintessential Jewish mother. Every actor was strong and proved vital to the powerful vocals of the show, most pointedly in the Act I finale’s “La Vie Bohème.” Davila’s choreography again instills high energy into the number with creative table-ography and fun movement.

And a performance of Rent cannot be discussed without mention of the achingly beautiful “Seasons of Love” at the top of Act II, with gorgeous solos by Anna Marquardt and Ryan Karg. The full cast lined the stage and sang out with all their souls to the audience. Conveying the importance of valuing every moment. And reminding us to measure life in love, not in grief and sadness.

I must mention that the sound system had several issues, which made it difficult to hear the vocals at times. Technical problems are the bane of live theater but the overall show was strong and delivered with passion and excellence. In turn, the response from the audience echoed the vibe with sheer enthusiasm.

Rent is a powerful show and Dominion Stage’s production takes to heart the enormousness of the show’s message. The legacy and history the story represents. And the lasting relevance the show has today. We are still fighting for equality and basic civil rights. There are countless who struggle with homelessness and addiction. People are beaten and humiliated simply for existing as their authentic selves. Just as in Rent, life is still hard, messy, and imperfect, but people, connection, and acceptance can bring us all together and carry us through anything.

Thank you also to Dominion for choosing to highlight the lasting impact of the AIDS Memorial Quilt as a part of the performance. It was an emotional touch. There is a site dedicated to the Memorial and it states:

Today, the quilt still collects panels memorializing loved ones and illustrates the real, human component of HIV/AIDS history.

May the memories of all those lost live forever in our hearts. And may the message of LOVE always ring above all else.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Rent runs through June 22, 2024, presented by Dominion Stage, performing at The Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 S Lang Street, Arlington, VA. Tickets are general admission and cost $30 (online coupon code “RENT5” saves $5) and may be purchased online. The online box office closes at 5 pm the day of performance, but a limited number of full-price tickets MAY be available at the door prior to curtain. Come early to secure a seat. (The entrance to Gunston Theatre Two is highlighted by neon lights. Use these doors only to access the theater.)

The playbill for Rent is online here.

This show contains adult content and subject matter and is not recommended for those under the age of 17.

COVID Policy: Masks are optional.

Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Jason Damaso
Musical direction by Stella Monshaw
Produced by Allison Gray-Mendes

Roger Davis: Preston Grover; Mark Cohen: Zach Kessel; Tom Collins: Brandon Schenk; Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III: Anthony Galace, Joanne Jefferson: Jasmine Jones; Angel Dumott Schunard: Muggs Leone; Mimi Marquez: Jennifer Soraya Rose, Maureen Johnson: Thea Simpson; Ensemble: Aja Goode, Ryan Karg, Anna Marquardt, Paul Pesnell, Jayson Phuah, Camryn Powers, Maria Valdisera, Garrett Walsh

Executive Producer: Matthew Randall; Producer: Allison Gray:Mendes; Director: Jason Damaso; Assistant Director: Mario Font; Music Director: Stella Monshaw; Choreographer: Ivan Davila; Stage Managers: Nick Friedlander and Lauren Markowich; Assistant Stage Manager: Dawn Morrow; Intimacy/Fight Coordinator: Emily “EJ” Jonas; Lighting Design: Ken and Patti Crowley; Special Effects/Projections: Jon Roberts; Sound Design: Sam Jensen; Set Design: Bill Brown; Set Dressing: Charles Dragonette; Properties: Sabrina McAllister; Master Carpenters: Skip Gresko and Sabrina McAllister; Costume Design: Larissa Norris; Costume Assistant: Luis Vasquez; Hair & Makeup Design: Rebecca Harris; Photography: Matthew Randall; Graphic Design: Brittany Washington

Conductor/Keyboard 1: Stella Monshaw; Guitar 1: Dakota Slay: Vincent; Guitar 2/Keyboard 2: Jake Gunter; Bass: Matthew Majors; Drums: Kevin Uleck


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