Carnegie’s RENT Powerfully Reminds Us There’s “No Day But Today”

In every essence of the word, my experience was transformational, it was spiritual, and it was simply liberating.

Review by Ariel Mary Ann

In the late 1980s, playwrights, Johnathan Larsen and Billy Aronson collaborated on bringing Puccini’s La Bohème, a classic opera, to a new generation by the means of highlighting reality of being a New Yorker. For Larsen, it became apparent that something needed to be done to address the cultural shift of the world waking up to the reality of the HIV/AIDS epidemic – which the American government ignored. 

In 1991, Larsen approached Aronson about the possibility of taking on RENT by himself and using it as a vehicle to uplift the voices of those living with homelessness, living with HIV/AIDS, and those who our society deemed unworthy of humanity. 

RENT is a testament of love, hope, and the power of community in times of uncertainty. Last night, I had the absolute pleasure and honor to witness the opening night of RENT presented by the Carnegie Theatre in Covington, Kentucky. 

Sitting in the Otto M. Budig theatre, I had a cathartic experience falling back in love with the show that made me fall in love with musical theatre in the first place. To say I enjoyed the show is simply an understatement. In every essence of the word, my experience was transformational, it was spiritual, and it was simply liberating.

Director, Eric Byrd has re-envisioned this show for a new generation reminding us that this story is forever timeless and forever relevant. His choreography takes Larsen’s music and lyrics to new heights in ways unexpected. You may think you know RENT but I promise you, Boyd’s vision will take you back to when you first listened to Anthony Rapp, on the original Broadway cast recording, sing the opening lines to the title song, “How do you document real life when real life’s getting more like fiction each day.

Dramaturg, Darnell Pierre Benjamin, helps connect the past to the present making sure each cast member understands that RENT is not simply a play but it is liberation at its highest form. 

Sitting in the front row, it was easy to see that the cast connected to their characters and embraced every song, every lyric, every key change, and made it their own. Jamal Stone as Angel lit the stage up with the way he danced through unforgettable numbers like “Today 4 U”.

As a Black trans woman, who deeply embraces her Black trans identity, I see how trans-ness and gender expression is often erased within the world of musical theatre because many think that the trans experience isn’t something worth bringing to the American theatre stage. I think it’s important to speak to how Angel encapsulates what it means to embrace gender nonconformity particularly when it relates to the Black and Brown experience. Even more so, I think it’s important to highlight the important of conscious casting and understanding that this role is, in many ways, not meant for white people because it disregards the lived experience of Black and Brown transgender and gender non-conforming humans.

Sean Polk as Collins simply brought the house down with the reprise of, “I’ll Cover You”. So often Black men are not allowed the space to be multiple dimensional beings because of racism and because of white society not seeing Black men as humans who are worthy of love. When you attach queerness to the lived reality of being a Black man in America, Collins becomes even more important because this character is the heart of Black boy joy. This is shown through Angel and Collins’ “I’ll Cover You” in Act I. 

Ranease Brown as Mimi and Jackson Reagin as Rodger shook me to my core with their duet of Another Day. Their performance truly emphasizes the importance of living for now despite the uncertainty of the future.

In 2022, HIV is no longer a death sentence but the stigma around this virus is still deeply present through using language such, “Are you clean?” “Not into pos” “I couldn’t sleep with someone who’s HIV positive”. Therefore, therefore, this is why RENT is important, this is why RENT still matters, and this is why theatre is so integral to our society. 

August Bagg, Jackson Reagin, Jamal Stone, Sean Polk, Sarah Jane Nelson, Julia Schick, Ranease Brown, Jared Roper, Tyler Martin, Julia Brosas, Madison Mosley, Liza Levy, and Nick Pattarini give this show their all and deserve all the praise for their deeply and dare I say, spiritually liberating interpretation of this powerful and forever classic show.

RENT is running at The Carnegie from July 16th to August 26th. Tickets can be found here.

Ariel Mary Ann is University of Cincinnati Alum, a local theatre artist and playwright, celebrating her First year with LCT.

NOTE: If you or someone you know is living with HIV or you need anonymous and confidential rapid HIV testing, please reach out to Caracole, Greater Cincinnati’s comprehensive HIV services nonprofit. Their website can be found here.

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