Nearly three decades after premiere, ‘Rent’ still packs a punch

rent review


From left, Jordan Barrow, Matt Rodin and Zachary Noah Piser co-star in “Rent” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.

“How can you connect in an age where strangers, lovers, landlords, your own blood cells betrays,” asked the late playwright and songwriter Jonathan Larson in a song from his 1996 musical “Rent,” which is currently being presented at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.

As you probably know, “Rent” is set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in the early ’90s, when lives were torn apart — or “rent,” to use the past tense of “rend” — by HIV and AIDS. Director Zi Alikhan underscores the point, in this production, by adding taped videos of survivors of the era, sharing memories.

“At first nobody knew what was happening,” one person says. “And then it happened so fast and there was nothing to be done except to wonder, you know, when will my time be?”

To quote from another “Rent” song, though, this musical is about people “living with, not dying from, disease.” There is sadness in it, certainly. But Larson — who was posthumously honored with three Tonys, including Best Musical, plus a Pulitzer, for “Rent,” and became a major influence on future “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and many others — was still intent on delivering an inspirational, life-affirming message. And that is one of the reasons the musical — based, in some ways, on Puccini’s 1896 opera “La Bohème,” but with a happier ending — struck such a chord with the public, during its initial run, and has been revived frequently since then.


Alisa Melendez plays Mimi in the Paper Mill Playhouse’s production of “Rent.”

One of the strengths of the Paper Mill production is the uniformly strong voices of its 15 cast members. The main characters all had songs on which they could shine, of course, but most of the ensemble members had moments when daunting vocal gymnastics were called for, too, and they pulled them off flawlessly.

The main characters are the somewhat nerdy filmmaker Mark (Zachary Noah Piser); Mark’s ex-girlfriend, the over-the-top performance artist and all-around troublemaker Maureen (Mackenzie Meadows); Maureen’s current girlfriend, the dependable public interest lawyer Joanne (Leana Rae Concepcion); Mark’s roommate, the rock musician and ex-junkie Roger (Matt Rodin); Roger’s love interest, the exotic dancer and struggling junkie Mimi (Alisa Melendez); Mark and Roger’s ex-roommate, the eccentric computer genius Tom (Terrance Johnson); Tom’s lover, the drag queen Angel (Olivia Lux); and the no-longer-bohemian, now-wealthy Benny (Jordan Barrow), who is Roger, Maureen and Tom’s ex-roommate as well as Mark and Roger’s current landlord, and has an on-again, off-again relationship with Mimi.

The characters of Tom and Joanne have tended to be a bit bland in past productions I’ve seen, but Concepcion and Johnson do a good job of bringing them into sharper focus. And while the past Angels I’ve seen have tended to be a bit on the shy side as well as sweetly … well, angelic, Lux, who has competed on the reality-TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” makes this one just as cosmically attuned, but louder and more boisterous, with much more star attitude.


Olivia Lux plays Angel in the Paper Mill Playhouse’s “Rent.”

The most famous song from “Rent,” “Seasons of Love,” is about the passage of time. And, indeed, “Rent” will bring some attendees back to an earlier — and possibly, for some, more exciting — time of their lives, with mentions of now-defunct nightclubs CBGB and The Pyramid Club, “yuppie scum” (does anyone use that phrase anymore?), the Village Voice (still around, though much changed from the ’90s), Alec Baldwin (ditto) and so on.

Larson’s story seems timeless, though — it should be, as it is recycled from the “La Bohème.” But just as importantly, so does his music, most notably the yearning ballads “I Should Tell You,” “Without You” and “Santa Fe”; the playful “Tango: Maureen”; the scintillating retro-rocker “Take Me or Leave Me”; and, of course, the anthemic but also bittersweet “Seasons of Love,” which provides a jolt of pure emotion at the start of Act II.

With a set of songs like this — and, as mentioned above, a cast of actors who can sing with great power — you can’t go wrong. And so while “Rent” may not seem as revolutionary as it did in ’96, it still packs an undeniable punch.

The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn closes its 2022-23 season with “Rent,” which runs through July 2. Visit


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