By CB Adams
Contributing Writer

What happens when you take Puccini’s La Boheme (The Breakfast Club of its day) out for a sexed-up, drugged-up, angst-amped joy ride through lower Manhattan in the upper decade of the former millennium?

Well, if it’s 24 years ago, it snags a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical while running for an impressive 12 years and grossing more than $280 million.

But what if it’s 24 years later? Do a quick internet search about the 20th-anniversary touring production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, which opened at the Fabulous Fox on Friday, Feb. 21, and you’ll find a significant amount of critics-sphere dithering about the dreaded R-word – relevance.

Is this Puccini reboot (of sorts) still relevant now that the LGBTQ and AIDS epidemic cultural landscape has shifted in the past two decades — to say nothing of New York City real estate?

On the other hand, is a focus on relevance really that…well, relevant? After all, is Oklahoma and its “surrey with the fringe on top” relevant? Is South Pacific and its hair washing man removal relevant? Will Hamilton still be hip-hoppin’ relevant in 20 years?

Kelsee Schweigard as Maureen

The crucible for relevance of any piece of theater (define relevance any way you please) is, ultimately, time. It’s about longevity. It’s about audiences willing – eager even – to engage with a new production of a show and embrace it anew. Within this context, the relevance of Rent, now 20 years on, is proved by its ability to enthusiastically fill seats, which this touring production certainly did on opening night at the Fox Theatre. The audience demographic was “youthier” than some other recent Fox shows, which makes sense because Rent is talkin’ ‘bout that younger generation that bridges the analogue and digital worlds.

The audience was greeted immediately by Paul Clay’s muscular, industrial set design, adapted for this production by Matthew Maraffi, which provided an effective visual environment that evoked the vibe and spirit of (to cross genres) the Dandy Warhols’ “Bohemian Like You.” The lighting was noteworthy, too, appropriately shifting from candle-lit love-mood to spotlighted rock concert stage. Tucked stage right was the lean pit orchestra, led by conductor/keyboardist Mark Binns, which was seamlessly – visually and aurally – integrated into the production. In fact, it was easy to forget they were on stage most of the time.   

Rent is a demanding show choreographically speaking. It requires a range of athleticism during numbers such Mimi’s Tina Turner-channeling “Out Tonight” to the company’s languid, funereal “Goodbye, Love.” This production is generally up to that challenge, though Aiyana Smash as Mimi appeared unsure and overly studied during some of her pole-dancing moves while climbing and hanging from the railings during “Out Tonight.” Such hesitancy was quickly forgotten after her tabletop romping later in that number.   

Costume Design by Angela Wendt was true to the original and to the 90s era it represented. Costumes were mostly rags that thankfully didn’t veer too deeply into Uriah Heep territory and enlivened with some Jane Fonda workout and Where’s Wally? flourishes. One misstep was the portrayal of the riot police who wore oversized, cartoonish visors, cupped their batons like rural sheriffs and marched like children on parade. That may have been the intent, but it detracted from the emotional reach of their scenes.

The 20th reunion Rent benefits from a strong, deep-bench cast:

Cody Jenkins as Mark Cohen

Cody Jenkins as Mark Cohen provided the connective tissue throughout as both emcee and cast member. He delivered an admirable range that modulated from affable to earnest and, at-times, angry and callow.

Coleman Cummings delivered a strong but uneven performance as Roger Davis. On numbers that required his “big voice,” his voice was strong, meaty and powerful, but in quieter moments he was ineffectively torpid and lispy, even though Roger is not in good health.

Audience favorite Angel Schunard was Pussy-Galored/Pussy-Glamoured with a cat-like, Jack Skellington-esque aplomb by Joshua Tavares. His drag queen persona rightly drew applause and you-go-girl affirmations, but his quieter, sick and dying scenes were equally as memorable for their quiet power – especially his simulated puking. Schunard had the perfect blend of range and moves for the entirety of this demanding part.

Kelsee Sweigard delivered one of the show’s most impressive performances as Maureen Johnson during the “Over the Moon” performance art number. She played the preposterous “milk in the cyber world” scene with a believable, earnest awkwardness that wasn’t easy to achieve – in the same way playing believably drunk is never easy.  

Shafiq Hicks as big-man Tom Collins belted out his deep, resonant, “Old Man River”-tinged voice in all his solos, especially his reprise of “I’ll Cover You.” His best stage moments begged the production make a hard stop – in only good ways – to pay special attention to his performance.

Ditto for Smash as Mimi. Smash’s show-stopping power was evident in equal measures in her dance and singing. Her Mimi shared an impressive spectrum of radiance, assertiveness, horniness, vulnerability and, ultimately, transfigured. 

Rent at 24 resonates a little differently than it did in its Broadway and touring heyday. Perhaps at its 30th and 40th anniversaries will find a different relevance, though audiences may need footnotes to explain references to the Sex Pistols, Spike Lee, Ecstasy, etc.

But, as Dale Carnegie (of all people) once wrote, “Your purpose is to make your audience see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt. Relevant detail, couched in concrete, colorful language, is the best way to recreate the incident as it happened and to picture it for the audience.”

Yeah, Rent does that.

The 20th anniversary tour of “Rent”

The Fabulous Fox Theatre presented “Rent” February 21-23.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre announced today that seats in the first rows of the orchestra section will be available for $24 for every performance of RENT, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical.   The $24 tickets are available for in-person cash only purchases at the Fox Box Office, located at 531 N. Grand Blvd, on the day of each performance only, two hours prior to the show. The $24 tickets are limited to two tickets per person. 

The tradition of these tickets began in 1996 in New York when the show moved to Broadway after a sold-out run in a small downtown theatre. The producers of the show are committed to continuing the tradition of offering these orchestra seats in each city the show will play.

RENT performs at the February 21-23. Performance times are Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m., and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

For general ticket information, visit MetroTix.com or by calling 314-534-1111.

Visit RentOnTour.netfor more information.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre brings the Best of Broadway to St. Louis with the announcement of the 2019–2020 U.S. Bank Broadway Series, including four new musicals that will make their St. Louis debuts. The seven-show season ticket package is headlined by pop culture phenomenon DEAR EVAN HANSEN. The season opens with the winner of four Tony® Awards including Best Revival of a Musical, HELLO, DOLLY!. Get ready to dance into 2020 with SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL,followed bythe 2018 Tony® Award Winner for Best Musical, THE BAND’S VISIT.  Embark on a mesmerizing joyride through a world of pure imagination with Roald Dahl’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.  The memory lives again when CATS, the record-breaking musical spectacular, comes to St. Louis in April and HAMILTON returns to close out the season for a limited five-week engagement! The season also features seven series specials that will include St. Louis’ most “popular” musical WICKED. 

HELLO, DOLLY! | October 1-13, 2019

Winner of four Tony® Awards including Best Musical Revival, HELLO, DOLLY! is the universally acclaimed smash that NPR calls “the best show of the year!” and the Los Angeles Times says “distills the mood-elevating properties of the American musical at its giddy best.”DirectorJerry Zaks’ “gorgeous” (Vogue) new production is “making people crazy happy!” hails The Washington Post. Afterbreaking box office records week after week and receiving unanimous raves on Broadway, this HELLO, DOLLY! is now touring America, paying tribute to the original work of legendary director/choreographer Gower Champion – hailed both then and now as one of the greatest stagings in musical theater history. Rolling Stone calls it “a must-see event. A musical comedy dream. If you’re lucky enough to score a ticket, you’ll be seeing something historic. Wow, wow, wow, indeed!”

DEAR EVAN HANSEN | October 22 – November 3, 2019

The much anticipated DEAR EVAN HANSEN, winner of six 2017 Tony® Awards including Best Musical and the 2018 Grammy® Award for Best Musical Theater Album, is coming to St. Louis this fall.  A letter that was never meant to be seen, a lie that was never meant to be told and a life he never dreamed he could have, Evan Hansen is about to get the one thing he’s always wanted: a chance to finally fit in. DEAR EVAN HANSEN is the deeply personal and profoundly contemporary musical about life and the way we live it.  DEAR EVAN HANSEN has struck a remarkable chord with audiences and critics everywhere, including The Washington Post which says DEAR EVAN HANSEN is “one of the most remarkable shows in musical theatre history.” The New York Times calls it “a gut-punching, breathtaking knockout of a musical.” And NBC Nightly News declares the musical “an anthem resonating on Broadway and beyond.” DEAR EVAN HANSEN features a book by Tony Award-winner Steven Levenson, a score by Grammy®, Tony and Academy Award® winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, The Greatest Showman), and direction by four-time Tony Award nominee Michael Greif (Rent, Next to Normal).

SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSCAL | January 15-26, 2020

She was a girl from Boston with a voice from heaven, who shot through the stars from gospel choir to dance floor diva. But what the world didn’t know was how Donna Summer risked it all to break through barriers, becoming the icon of an era and the inspiration for every music diva who followed.  With a score featuring more than 20 of Summer’s classic hits including “Love to Love You Baby,” “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff,” this electric experience is a moving tribute to the voice of a generation.  SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL takes us through Donna Summer’s tumultuous life, tempestuous loves and mega-watt musical hits. Spend the night in her electrifying universe.

THE BAND’S VISIT | February 25 – March 8, 2020

Spend an evening in the company of unforgettable strangers at THE BAND’S VISIT—now one of the most celebrated musicals ever with ten 2018 Tony® Awards including Best Musical. And now it’s also a Grammy Award® winner for Best Musical Theater Album. THE BAND’S VISITrejoices in the way music brings us to life, brings us to laughter, brings us to tears, and ultimately, brings us together.  In an Israeli desert town where every day feels the same, something different is suddenly in the air. Dina, the local café owner, had long resigned her desires for romance to daydreaming about exotic films and music from her youth. When a band of Egyptian musicians shows up lost at her café, she and her fellow locals take them in for the night. Under the spell of the night sky, their lives intertwine in unexpected ways, and this once sleepy town begins to wake up.   

Roald Dahl’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY | March 17-29, 2020

Roald Dahl’s amazing tale is now St. Louis’ golden ticket! It’s the perfect recipe for a delectable treat: songs from the original film, including “Pure Imagination,” “The Candy Man,” and “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket,” alongside a toe-tapping and ear-tickling new score from the songwriters of Hairspray.   Willy Wonka is opening his marvelous and mysterious chocolate factory…to a lucky few. That includes Charlie Bucket, whose bland life is about to burst with color and confection beyond his wildest dreams. He and four other golden ticket winners will embark on a mesmerizing joyride through a world of pure imagination. St. Louis audiences will experience the wonders of Wonka like never before – with Oompa-Loompas, incredible inventions, the great glass elevator, and more, more, more at this everlasting showstopper!

CATS | April 7-19, 2020

CATS, the record-breaking musical spectacular by Andrew Lloyd Webber that has captivated audiences in over 30 countries and 15 languages, is now on tour across North America! Audiences and critics alike are rediscovering this beloved musical with breathtaking music, including one of the most treasured songs in musical theater—”Memory”. Winner of 7 Tony Awards® including BEST MUSICAL, CATS tells the story of one magical night when an extraordinary tribe of cats gathers for its annual ball to rejoice and decide which cat will be reborn. The original score by Andrew Lloyd Webber (The Phantom of the Opera, School of Rock, Sunset Boulevard), original scenic and costume design by John Napier (Les Misérables), all-new lighting design by Natasha Katz (Aladdin), all-new sound design by Mick Potter, new choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton) based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne (Phantom) and direction by Trevor Nunn (Les Misérables) make this production a newCATS for a new generation!

HAMILTON | May 5 – June 7, 2020

HAMILTON is  the  story  of  America’s  Founding  Father  Alexander  Hamilton,  an  immigrant  from the  West  Indies  who  became  George  Washington’s  right-hand  man  during  the  Revolutionary War  and  was  the  new nation’s first Treasury Secretary. Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, blues, rap, R&B, and Broadway, HAMILTON is the story of America then, as told by America now.  With book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, direction by Thomas Kail, choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler and musical supervision and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, HAMILTON is based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.

Series Specials

Seven Broadway specials will be offered to 2019–2020 season ticket holders for priority seating before their public on-sale dates.

The party starts with Jimmy Buffett’s ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE October 18-20, the musical comedy featuring both original songs and your most-loved Jimmy Buffett classics. See what all the noise is about with STOMP November 15-17, now celebrating 25 years in New York City. CIRQUE DREAM HOLIDAZE lights up the Fox stage with its popular and electrifying holiday stage spectacular November 29-30. St. Louis’ most “popular” musical WICKED returns for the holidays December 4-29.JERSEY BOYS will take you from the streets of New Jersey to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame January 30-February 2. RIVERDANCE comes back to St. Louis with a powerful and new 25th Anniversary production February 14-16. Back by popular demand, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony® Award winning show RENT continues to speak loudly and defiantly to audiences February 21-23.

New seven-show season ticket packages will go on sale May 8 at 10 a.m. Current U.S. Bank Broadway season ticket holders will receive their renewal information the week of March 18. On-sale dates for individual shows will be announced later. For more information, please call the Fox Subscription office at 314-535-1700. Groups of 10 or more should call 314-535-2900 for special rates and reservations. The Broadway Series at the Fabulous Fox Theatre is presented by U.S. Bank.

2019 – 2020 U.S. Bank Broadway Series Shows and Specials:

(The Seven Season Ticket shows are in bold)

HELLO, DOLLY! * October 1-13, 2019

Jimmy Buffett’s ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE * October 18-20, 2019

DEAR EVAN HANSEN * October 22 – November 3, 2019

STOMP * November 15-17, 2019

CIRQUE DREAMS HOLIDAZE * November 29-30, 2019

WICKED * December 4-29, 2019

SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL * January 15-26, 2020

JERSEY BOYS * January 30 – February 2, 2020

RIVERDANCE New 25th Anniversary Show * February 14-16, 2020

RENT 20th Anniversary Tour * February 21-23, 2020

THE BAND’S VISIT * February 25 – March 8, 2020

Roald Dahl’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY * March 17 – 29, 2020

CATS * April 7-19, 2020

HAMILTON * May 5 – June 7, 2020

#              #              #

Megan Ketcherside