Despite the presence of a phone booth onstage — remember those? — “Rent,” in its current run at the Vanguard Theater in Montclair, doesn’t seem dated at all. The late Jonathan Larson’s musical, of course, is more than 25 years old, having debuted of-Broadway in 1996. But with a story inspired by Puccini’s 1896 opera “La Bohème,” and struggling young artists and activists still populating our cities, it seems timeless.
Many of the actors in this production — young theater professionals, college students, and even a high school student, Quincy Hampton, in one of the main roles, documentary filmmaker Mark — are younger than “Rent” itself. But they never seem like they’re playing characters from another time, as a 1996 actor might have seemed, for instance, in a production of “Hair.”
As director (and Vanguard Theater Company artistic director) Janeece Freeman Clark writes in the program, in the world we’re living in now, the musical’s “exploration of disease, death, debt, and eviction intersect yet again in a way that keenly echoes Jonathan Larson’s lyric, ‘How do you document real life/When real life’s getting more/Like fiction each day.’ ”
The set, designed by Eric Marchetta, has a fairly small stage, with the five musicians in the show’s band visible behind the actors. So it comes as a bit of a jolt that the young actors are able to fill it with so much kinetic energy. They also sing uniformly well. This is the third Vanguard Theater Company show I’ve reviewed (I’ve also seen “Next to Normal” and “Into the Woods” there) since it opened its new Montclair space last year, and I’ve been impressed by them all.
Hampton is joined in the main cast by Michael Jayne Walker as Roger, Mark’s roommate, a rock musician and an ex-junkie; Lily Soto as Mimi, an exotic dancer and drug addict who has an affair with Roger; Jordan Gold as Maureen, a mercurial performance artist and Mark’s ex-girlfriend; Markia Furtado-Rahill as Joanne, a no-nonsense lawyer who is Maureen’s girlfriend; Marcel Joshua as Benny, who used to be Roger and Mark’s roommate and is now their money-hungry landlord; Chachi Quinn as Angel, a drag queen with a luminous presence; and Jason Smith as Collins, an earnest teacher who is Angel’s boyfriend.
Four of the characters are HIV-positive. One will die, and one will come close to it, by the end of the musical.
I was impressed by how thoroughly each actor became his or her character: How Hampton as Mark, for instance, really seemed tortured as he contemplates selling out; how Soto, as Mimi, seems so predatory as she seduces Roger, whom she recognizes as a fellow addict; how Joshua, as Benny, interacted with the other characters with withering condescension; and how Quinn, as Angel (the most lovable character in the play), radiates a positive energy that makes everyone care for him so deeply.
Among others in the cast, Nimat Saleem, who played several small roles, stood out with her strong and assured singing voice.
There have been several other productions of “Rent,” around the state, in conjunction with the musical’s 25th anniversary. And Northern New Jersey’s largest venue exclusively devoted to theater, the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, will present it as part of its 2022-23 season (next May and June).
Still, for any longtime fan of this musical — or someone wondering what all the fuss was about in the first place — the Vanguard’s “Rent” should not be missed.
The Vanguard Theater in Montclair presents “Rent” through July 3; visit vanguardtheatercompany.org.
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