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Rent Has a New Lease on Life Off-Broadway

by Rich and Laura Lynch

"RENT is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century," said Jonathan Larson in a one sentence summary of RENT - the play that he labored over a seven year period to pen and perfect.

RENT at New Word Stages - Off Broadway

RENT is based on Giacomo Puccini's opera "La Boheme" and Larson's days in the East Village . It is the story of struggling artists in scruffy conditions dealing with the serious issues of addiction, HIV and homelessness. RENT reflects life in its highs and lows as told through dance, pop, salsa and rock music. RENT is what theater is supposed to be - emotional and engaging.

RENT was on Broadway for 12 years (1996-2008) and has won many awards including a Tony for Best Musical. RENT has been performed around the world and in 2005 it was made into a movie that featured many of the original cast members. Since RENT is still a popular musical it remains in New York City where it was born and bred. On March 31, 2012 we went to The New World Stages at 340 West 50th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues) to experience the show for the first time.

RENT spanned a one year period that began on Christmas Eve. The walls of the theater and stage were dark as Christmas lights shined down on a sparse apartment where we met Mark Cohen - an aspiring filmmaker - and Roger Davis. Roger is a musician who has AIDS and is trying to compose one glorious song before he dies.

The plot thickens as Tom Collins, a computer genius living with AIDS, meets drag queen Angel also battling the disease. The two connect during the song "You Okay Honey." Benjamin Coffin III is a former friend of both Mark and Roger and is now their current landlord. Benny comes looking for the overdue rocking "Rent."

Benjamin is having problems with Mark's ex-girlfriend Maureen Johnson who is protesting Benny constructing a Cyber Studio in the lot next to Mark's shabby apartment. Maureen is an advocate for the homeless. Instead of helping Benny, Mark goes to the site of Johnson's protest to help fix her equipment. Cohen meets Joanne Jefferson the women who stole Maureen away from Mark. During the tantalizing "Tango Maureen" the two commiserate on their flighty and flirtatious lover.

Lastly, Mimi Marquez a dancer and drug addict who is also HIV+ is interested in Mark. Mimi does her best to seduce Davis in the sizzling "Light My Candle." Later, the two become a couple but the relationship is rocky for a number of reasons including addiction, fear and not telling each other the truth as alluded to in "I Should Tell You."

These intertwined storylines are told through the music and voice mails - a technique that was used throughout the production. The music was diverse ranging from some rap to rock with sentimental moments and show tunes handled by the whole company.

Despite the dark subject matters the majority of the songs were energizing and the dancing was enticing. The first act closes with Maureen's one woman performance/protest and an afterparty where the friends celebrate art in the lively "La Vie Boheme"/I Should Tell You."

The second act starts around "Happy New Year" and the line items presented in the first act continue to unfold throughout the coming year that concludes on Christmas Eve. The plight of the homeless was presented along with life lessons. Often the messages were subtle blended into the dance and music.

The pain and passion of love was a prevailing theme in the second half encapsulated in "Goodbye Love" where Mark and Mimi sing of their love for each other despite their difficulties. As the two share their sentiments, we watch Angel change from his flamboyant clothes to men's pajamas as Collin cradles his friend in the final stages of AIDS. It was so sad to see Angel who was so full of life and flair in the first act fade out in the second.

More highs and lows unfold. Roger finishes his song - a pretty acoustic piece called "Your Eyes". The pace picks up as the rest of the company comes out for the "Finale". After their bow the cast quickly mentioned Broadway Cares - an organization dedicated to fighting AIDS. They asked for donations and had Playbills and posters that were signed by the entire cast for a certain dollar amount donations.

Although, RENT takes place in the early 90's and the use of a pay phone may seem dated the stories of death, illiness, love and life are timeless. Thus, RENT should continue to have a new lease on life with fresh tenants and those who return to dig deeper into the details that make RENT a riveting play.

The New World Stages has multiple stages and multiple shows in production at any given time. The complex is close to parking, the subway and Hell's Kitchen. Behind the box office is the "Worldwide Plaza" - an open space park surrounded by cafes and unique boutiques. RENT is one of four musicals currently featured at the venue in a vibrant off-broadway neighborhood.

Related Links: For more information on RENT and the other organizations mentioned please visit the following links - RENT | NEW WORLD STAGES

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