NORTH FORK, NY —There are certain shows so iconic, touching such a universal human chord, that audiences come back, again and again, to experience the full range of emotions, sing along with a soaring score, and ensure that the work is not just a one-night performance but a part of the fabric of their lives forever.
Such is the magic of “Rent.” With book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, “Rent” debuted in 1996 and went on for a run of more than 5,000 performances on Broadway, setting the bar and breaking stereotypes. Loosely based on the opera “La Boheme,” the show won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical.
“Set in the East Village of New York City, ‘Rent’ is about falling in love, finding your voice, and living for today. ‘Rent’ has become a pop cultural phenomenon. with songs that rock and a story which resonates with audiences of all ages. . . ‘Rent’ follows a year in the life of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in New York’s Lower East Side, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS. How these young bohemians negotiate their dreams, loves and conflicts provides the narrative thread to this groundbreaking musical,” the NFCT’s description read.
So avid was the ardent “Renthead” crowd — scores camping out on the sidewalk for the chance to see the show repeatedly, keeping score of who had seen the most performances —the concept of both “rush” tickets and the “lottery” system was born. The film also touched hearts and sparked a new wave of fandom.
With so much love behind a show, the idea of bringing it to a local stage might seem daunting. But the North Fork Community Theater’s current Youth on Stage production is every bit as illuminating and life-affirming as the original — and that’s from a reviewer who saw the show multiple times on Broadway and, still, has a CD playing in the car.
The NFCT’s production of “Rent” bursts with life, joy and abject sorrow as the show explores the incredible loss a generation experienced with the onset of the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s coupled with homelessness and the stark dichotomy of a New York City sharply divided between staggering wealth and searing poverty. The theater is papered with posters from the time and nothing is more hauntingly beautiful than the photo of graffiti artist Keith Haring, who lost his battle with AIDS when he was just 31 in 1990. Seeing his face on the wall and hearing Michael Krulder, as Roger, sing an agonizingly bereft “One Song Glory,” the show takes on an even deeper level of meaning, as it does with “Will I?”
“Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow? From this nightmare?” One can’t help but envision the many young people, bright and bursting with talent and the same energy vibrating off the NFCT stage, cut short at the beginning of their collective journeys by the scourge of an epidemic merciless in its march forward.
Every actor in this NFCT cast shines. As Roger, Krulder presents a young man whose face is literally a canvas for his inner conflict, struggling with an uncertain future and his dawning love or Meghan Duffy’s Mimi, when he knows from sad experience how dangerous it can be to give your heart to what may in the end be another love doomed by sickness and despair.
His voice is equally thunderous and tender, and he lights up the stage.
Duffy’s performance as Mimi is simply incandescent. She imbues her character with so much more than audiences have seen before. As she sings “There’s only us, There’s only this, Forget regret — or life is yours to miss,” her voice is filled with a new conviction and strength that seems to match Roger’s fear with the ferocity of passion. And when she stands on the stage, her voice breaking on “Good-bye Love,” the tears fall. It’s impossible to watch Duffy in that moment and not feel every aching note.
Brandon Horyczun as Mark is equally compelling in his honest portrayal of loneliness as he weighs a future career with all he must leave behind.
Ghana Haase is a masterful actor and his performance as Tom Collins; losing his Angel — played with a new and candid look by Quinn Bruer into the pain the character has endured —is gutting in its purity.
Chris Walker somehow finds a way to imbue his Benjamin with humanity. And, there aren’t words to covey just how delightful Shannon Colfer is, as Maureen. She bursts onto the stage with an unsurpassed magnetism and energy that makes it impossible for the audience to turn away; her stand-out performance resonates long after the last curtain call. Lily Kutner as Joanne is dynamic in the role, and together, they soar.
While the entire ensemble wows, watching Abby Tyler — who also serves as dance captain — take the stage is just heartwarming for audiences who’ve seen her grow up, literally, in the NFCT spotlight, beginning with “South Pacific” 10 years ago. That kind of growth, the forever bonds that are created, speak to why the NFCT’s YOS program is a gift to not just the young people, but to the community – an investment in young talent and lives.
Directed by Joel Ehrlich, with musical direction by Karen Hochstedler, choreography by Sarah Scarbrough, and co-produced by Phyllis Ehrlich and Mary Motto Kalich — “Rent” also features impeccable set design by Casey Rooney — the show is simply so good that audiences find themselves newly incarnated “Rentheads” on the North Fork – wanting to go back, just once more, because really, there’s no day but today.
“Rent” will run through August 7, with performances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday’s at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and are available here.
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