Playwrite Jonathan Larson never had the privilege of sitting in the audience, along with a packed house to witness his stageplay, RENT. He never experienced the standing ovations, physically received the Tony Awards, or spent any of the millions of dollars the play has earned over the last 20 years. Larson suddenly passed away the night before the Off-Broadway premiere in 1996 and left the cast dumbfounded and broken. But the show eventually went on.

Two decades later, RENT’s anniversary tour is attracting hundreds of patrons who know and love the musical, including those right here in Charlotte. Until October 1st, Belk Theater will house the rundown apartment in New York City’s East Village where the play is set, lit with a hazardous Christmas tree and candles that serve as both heat and light to its tenants.

The 1996 cast included Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin, Taye Diggs, and several other notable names, many of whom also performed in the television version in 2005. The cast members who now own these roles have given them new life and absolutely allows each one of the characters to live on, in this new generation. Aaron Harrington is a Durham, NC native and hits the bullseye as Tom Collins, the college professor who falls in love with Angel, a drag queen, played by Aaron Alcaraz. As drug addict Mimi Marquez, Skylar Volpe trades in her studious glasses and soft curls (as seen in her playbill headshot) for disheveled hair and pale skin. She jumps from a high and promiscuous neighbor, to a singer and dancer in a club, to a caring but uncertain lover.  Another confused soul, Maureen Johnson, played by Lyndie Moe wows the audience in her lengthy solo performance.

I’m not a millennial, but I can imagine the producers may have considered updating the production to possibly appeal to them. In the era of cell phones, the internet, and search engines, how can one survive without these modes of communication? LAN lines, beeping answering machines, and good old conversation was the norm then. That didn’t change.

By not having ever (never ever) watched the stage play or the television version of this award-winning play, I don’t have anything to compare it to. However, in the past, I’d watched commercials, and heard songs performed on daytime television advertising the show. It never looked interesting to me. But while engrossed in the performance at Belk Theater, I could liken each character to who played the same role originally. This piqued my interest so I decided to watch much of the television version online. Director Evan Ensign certainly followed in the footsteps of original director Michael Greif. Each of the main characters were just as passionate as I expected them to be.

They’re all friends and lovers simply trying to find their way while navigating their lives amidst HIV/AIDS, drugs, poverty, and fulfilling their dreams. The new cast didn’t disappoint. In fact, they seemed honored to be the faces of this new class of talent.

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