Rowan Theater Department’s “Rent” brings intense passion to the stage

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"Canavan and Valenzuela’s performance of “Goodbye Love” toward the end of Act II was a particular highlight. Always emotional, this rendition was particularly gut-wrenching." - Managing Editor / Abigail Twiford

The Rowan Theater Department’s spring mainstage musical for 2024 was the 1993 Broadway classic “Rent.” The rock musical is inspired by the opera “La Boheme,” and centers around a group of eight friends in Lower Manhattan’s East Village, specifically the neighborhood of Alphabet City during the HIV/ AIDS pandemic of the 1980s. 

There’s narrator Mark Cohen, a Jewish filmmaker who lives with Roger Davis, a musician and guitarist living with HIV. Their friend, Tom Collins, is a gay philosophy professor at NYU, with AIDS. His partner is Angel Dumott Schunard, a drag queen who plays percussion. Roger’s girlfriend is Mimi, an erotic dancer who also has HIV. Mark’s ex-girlfriend is Maureen Johnson, a bisexual performance artist, and her girlfriend is the lawyer Joanne. Finally, there’s Benny, a former roommate of Mark, Roger, Collins, and Maureen, who is Mark and Roger’s landlord at the start of the play.

Rowan’s production was standard in terms of overall storytelling, not making any major changes or revisions. However, the performance set itself apart from previous productions of the work in several other ways. Everyone in the musical, from the leads to the ensemble, brought palpable energy and passion to the stage. 

A particular standout was Sage Rivera as Angel. Angel is a particularly lively and deep character that is usually a fan favorite in many performances, and Rivera was no different. Cheers were heard throughout the audience whenever she would come out on stage, particularly when she changed into a Santa-inspired dress for “Today 4 U.” 

In the over 30 years of the musical’s existence, Benny is usually played by a Black male actor. Rowan’s performance differed by casting a white woman to play the role. The character remained male, but the actress was not disguised or costumed in an overly masculine way, mostly just wearing a button-down with actress Josie Shock’s hair tied into a tight and low ponytail. 

Freshman David Aragon played the role of Tom Collins, and gave an incredibly emotional performance of “I’ll Cover You (Reprise).” The song “I’ll Cover You” is the first song where Angel and Collins admit their love for each other. The reprise comes after Angel passes away from complications of AIDS, and Collins sings a powerful, soulful, and tragic ballad lamenting the loss of his partner. Aragon’s rendition brought silence to the theater and rounds of sorrowful cheers when the song finished.

Nicholas Williams playing Mark, and Mia Canavan as Mimi, both had obvious chemistry with Joseph Valenzuela in the role of Roger, needed for some of the more intensely emotional songs that come up between Roger and Mimi, as well as Roger and Mark. 

Canavan and Valenzuela’s performance of “Goodbye Love” toward the end of Act II was a particular highlight. Always emotional, this rendition was particularly gut-wrenching.

The set was also fairly typical to other performances of the musical, though, the band playing the musical backing tracks to the vocal performances was on the Tohill stage with the actors rather than in a pit in front of the stage. They were positioned under a platform with the stairs used to portray second stories, fire escapes, and general distance between characters. 

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