MURRAY — For modern musical theatre lovers, Rent is as well known as Hello, Dolly! for previous generations.  I personally remember hanging out at the dorms at USU with my theatre friends performing the entire show from beginning to end, even though at that point I had not seen an actual production.

Show closes October 9, 2013.

Show closes October 9, 2013.

Fast forward 15 years, and I have seen several casts on Broadway, several professional, semi-professional, regional, community, and even the edited high school version. On top of that, there is the movie, and a video recording of a stage performance before it closed on Broadway in 2008. Add on the numerous awards this show has garnered, including the rare and prestigious Pulitzer Prize, taking on the task of directing a production of Rent has to be daunting.The best summary I have ever read of Rent was one that the author and composer, the late Jonathan Larson, gave to original director Michael Grief only weeks before his unexpected death.  “Rent is about a community celebrating life in the face of death and AIDS at the turn of the century.”  The show is full of fun, edgy music, difficult themes, and is basically a rock opera.

Trent English as Roger Davis in Utah Repertory Theater Company’s production of Rent. Photo by Jaron Hermansen / Underground Creative.

Trent English as Roger Davis in Utah Repertory Theater Company’s production of Rent. Photo by Jaron Hermansen / Underground Creative.

In an interview with UTBA, the director of this particular production, William Cooper Howell, discussed that he wanted to try something a little new with his production.  He wanted to get down to the theme and the story of the show, stripping away the well known, the expected, the cookie cutter version, and try and tell the story through the music and the cast.  To open up the audience to the vulnerability of the show, and to give even the self proclaimed “Rent-heads” something to ponder and think about, allowing everyone to see something new in this story. The success of his vision was beyond anything I could have ever expected from a production of Rent in a small, new theatre company in Utah, and I left with the honest opinion that the production I just saw would have made Jonathan Larson and the original production team proud.First, let me describe the amazing space the company chose to perform in, The Project.  This is a warehouse, and Rent was the first theatrical production to be put on in the space.  The space is slightly run down, just like the place that the main characters live in.   The set was extremely minimal by design, almost like a production of Our Town. Howell chose to scale down the set and instead ramp up the movement, choreography, and allow the skills of the cast to tell the story.

Rent 2 - Utah Repertory TheaterOne of the best choices that I noticed was seen in Howell’s choreography (with Elena Dern as assistant choreographer), which communicated in innovative and astonishing ways the themes of the show.  I could point out many different moments in the show that the skills of these two choreographers were used, however one moment was so haunting that I still thought of it all evening, and that was the symbolic and ominous choice of choreography of the cast during the love duet “Without You.”  It is something that must be witnessed, not described. I was weeping openly at that moment.

As for the cast, each of them deserve to be praised.  Austen Archer, playing the main character of Mark, has a lovely voice and interacted so well with the other performers.  His sincere emotion during the song “Halloween” was impressive.  Trent English, as Roger, was at first just another actor playing Roger, but as the show went on, I felt English’s emotion grew and I was able to see and understand the character in a way that I never had before. By the time he sang the pivotal ballad “Your Eyes,” though I knew full well the outcome of the show, I found myself on the edge of my seat concerned for each of the characters and feeling empathy for the difficulties in their lives.

The first is that this was the first time I saw a production of Rent that truly used the supporting cast to its greatest potential.  Rachel Shull, played (among other roles) the usually campy and cheesy part of Mark’s mother so well that rather than just laughing at her, I really believed Mark’s mother was a caring and concerned parent.  This was just one example of how taking away the unessential aspects of theatre allowed the cast to tell the story and create a show that consisted of so much more than just fun songs and AIDS activism.

3 Derek Gregerson as Angel Schunard in Utah Repertory Theater Company’s production of “Rent.” Photo by Jaron Hermansen / Underground Creative.

3 Derek Gregerson as Angel Schunard in Utah Repertory Theater Company’s production of “Rent.” Photo by Jaron Hermansen / Underground Creative.

The casting of Connor Norton as Mimi honestly surprised me, because she was not the “typical” Mimi I was used to seeing.  Norton was not harsh around the edges, and she had a vulnerability that left me at first a little uncomfortable.  However, as the story progressed I realized that I should be uncomfortable.  Mimi is a vulnerable character, who wants to be happy, and be loved, but is forced to leave her innocence based on her struggles with addiction.  Norton opened my eyes to the fact that this was a 19-year-old girl, living in a harsh world, and was not just the surface character that I had always seen Mimi as being. Similarly, the character of Angel the drag queen (played by Derek Gregerson) was reimagined with a sweet innocence that I had never seen before. Gregerson’s portrayal of Angel opened my eyes to the fact that she is the one character in the show without a major vice and has a heart of gold.  She is the person who brings peace, and ties the entire cast together, yet she is also a person that society has often mocked and sidelined because of the way she dressed and who she chose to share her life with.  Watching the story of Angel unfold throughout the evening, I felt that for the first time, I finally understand why Rent was honored with a Pulitzer Prize.The show was not perfect, though.  Being a new space, the sound system struggled, and I even wondered if it would be possible to do the show without microphones.  The band was excellent, but occasionally overpowering because of the sound system malfunctions. However, I am confident that as the company gets more used to the space, those hiccups will be overcome.

Go see Rent.  Set aside your fear that the characters are different than you. Some aspects of the show may shock you, and certainly understand that there is adult content before making decisions regarding attendance.   Look past all of what you may think or expect, and realize that all of us really just want understanding, love, and to know that someone cares.

Utah Repertory Theater Company’s production of RENT plays Thursdays through Sundays at 7:30 PM through October 9 and on October 9 at 2 PM at The Project (258 West 700 South, Salt Lake City). Tickets are $15-18. For more information, visit UtahRep.org.