Review: 'RENT' stands the test of time

Tuesday night, a standing ovation met the cast of RENT after they rocked a crowd of about 2,000 at Grand Rapids’ DeVos Performance Hall.

The 1996 punk-rock musical, hosted by Broadway Grand Rapids, was performed excellently, with stunning vocals and smooth choreography. The 47 songs throughout the show were interwoven seamlessly, each bringing a new sound and feeling.

The show begins quiet and personal, introducing the audience to Mark, narrator and one of the main characters. A diverse cast comes out of the woodwork, lights flashing, music blaring (in a good way) and voices bursting into song. RENT centers around a group of young people — starving artists, musicians, a drag queen, drug addicts — living in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. The storyline is simple, but the lives of each of the characters are complex.

Corporate greed, death and heartbreak bring grief to the friend group, but the bond of friendship is stronger than they think. In the beginning, as the cast sings, “Everything is rent,” it’s hard not to relate. The word “rent” also means “torn apart.” Each character’s life is being torn apart in one way or another.

Amid the wood, metal, pipes and stringed lights on the set, the audience was able to see the devastation in the apartment building Mark and his friends live in, and the poverty and homelessness in New York City. The lighting was phenomenal, casting dramatic shadows when needed, and they were appreciated.

With the set, music and excellent performance, the audience was brought back to the ’90s, to a time where more gay people were in the closet and AIDS awareness was growing. The Green Day-esque punk rock sound clearly reflects the angst of that time, the end of a millennium, when it felt like the world might be ending.

Sadly, the composer of RENT died the morning of what was supposed to be the first performance on April 25, 1996. The spirit of Jonathan Larson lives through the music in this piece and it’s clear he was trying to send a message about a specific generation of people. Larson, inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème,” spent almost a decade working on the musical, waiting tables to support himself, and cutting more than half of the original songs from the piece.

While the show is sad and brings up tough topics, it also kept the audience laughing — whether it was from a funny remark, a pop culture reference or when Maureen mooned the audience. This is a show you won’t want to miss. It’s hilarious, devastating and romantic. Most of all, it’s a refreshing reminder to enjoy life moment-by-moment — a message that remains relevant as ever 20 years later.

Only two shows follow last night’s performance. Get to it.

Broadway Grand Rapids
DeVos Performance Hall
303 Monroe Ave. NW
March 14-16, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets start at $37