As difficult as it might be to believe, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the arrival on Broadway of Jonathan Larson’s landmark musical, “Rent.” And here is the good news: There could be no better way to celebrate this show about aspiring artists living on the edge than to see it on the intimate stage of Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, where a cast of supremely talented young performers (who double as waiters), probably earn just enough to pay their mobile phone bills and their fare on the L.
When: Through May 1 (planned extension cancelled)
Where: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, 6970 N. Glenwood
Tickets: $34 – $44
Info: (800) 595-4849; www.theo-u.com
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission
True, “Hamilton” has already become the “next generation’s” iconic musical. But it will be years before the rights to that show become available to a storefront operation like Theo Ubique (as terrific a job as they would surely do with it). And “Rent” still feels topical in its treatment of everything from gentrification and political activism, to the plague of drugs and AIDS (even if the latter is not quite the same death sentence as it once was).
More than topical, the Theo Ubique production feels incredibly authentic, with the winning “in transition” quality of its Rogers Park side street venue an apt equivalent for the Alphabet Streets of New York’s East Village “at the end of the Millennium,” and with its small but ever ingeniously used venue replacing the glitz of a big Broadway stage.
Theo Ubique’s production features fully environmental direction by Scott Weinstein (who previously demonstrated his musical theater flair with Griffin Theatre’s “Titanic” and Chicago Shakespeare’s “Seussical”). And if you need a reminder of just how beautiful and tremendously varied Larson’s seamlessly sung-through score is, the galvanic music direction of pianist Jeremy Ramey (and his sensational band, comprised of Justin LaForte, Jake Saleh and Kevin Brown), is right there, rocking it out at full blast one moment, going all bluesy the next, and, at moments, capturing the plaintive chords of Puccini’s “La Boheme,” the show’s inspiration. The blend of clarion voices of the 15-member cast is the icing on the cake.
Beginning on Christmas eve of 1989, and tracing a year in the life of a group of struggling artists and their friends, “Rent” is framed by the fates of two guys sharing an unheated loft in a building that might soon be turned into a high-rent recording studio and offices. Roger (Patrick Rooney, who recently starred in ‘Spring Awakening” at the Marriott, and is just boyishly intense, dreamy and moody enough), is a songwriter recently out of rehab – emotionally shattered after his girlfriend told him they were both HIV positive and took her own life.
Now, determined to leave one great song of glory behind, he finds himself falling in love again — with the beautiful Mimi (the charismatic Savannah Hoover, a leggy senior at Columbia College, who moves like a panther). Another “user,” also with HIV, she dances in a kinky club and has a fierce seize-the-day mentality. (The chemistry between Rooney and Hoover is right on the mark, most beautifully displayed in the feverish song, “Without You.”)
Mark (Matt Edmonds, who deftly captures his character’s low-grade depression), is a documentary filmmaker and something of a loner after being dumped by his girlfriend, the omni-sexual performance artist Maureen (Courtney Jones, who gives a rousing rendition of “Over the Moon”).
Also part of the circle are Collins (lush-voiced Chuckie Benson is superb), a computer expert who is rescued from a mugging by the drag queen, Angel (wraith-like Aubrey McGrath is spot-on). The two, who also are HIV positive, instantly bond. In addition there is Joanne (Nicole Michelle Haskins), Maureen’s new corporate-minded lover, and Benny (the power-voiced Jaymes Osborne), who was once friends with Mark and Roger, but is now their upwardly mobile landlord.
Choreographer Daniel Spagnuolo takes full advantage of the dancing skills of both Hoover and Jones, and also deploys every member of the airtight ensemble to create a swirling mass of humanity. Adam Veness’ raw pipes-and-brick-walls set (richly enhanced by Kristof Janezic’s lighting and Brock Alter’s projections) is ideal, with Izumi Inaba’s costumes a perfect mix of Goodwill-like castoffs and business polish.
Most importantly, each one of those “five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes” in a year of love, loss and creativity are lived to the fullest.
NOTE: A “Rent”-themed dinner (with “Alphabet City” salad, baked chili mac and brownie) can be ordered in advance by those who wish to engage in a bit of low-key dinner theater.