It was a war against an internal enemy. A mystery at first, then suddenly an epidemic. By the mid-‘90s, hundreds of thousands of Americans had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS — men, women and children; gay and straight; young and old; family and friends.
“Rent,” staged by Riverwalk Theatre, brings it all back — the dark ages of a generation of young adults in Greenwich Village struggling to come of age without dying from this mystery disease. It’s love in a time of pestilence. The garment of their innocence is rent. They are losing the illusion of immortality and — quite literally — they cannot pay the rent.
Kelly Stuible-Clark directs a dynamic, rousing rendition of the 20-year-old Broadway play. The cast of 19 features an ensemble chorale that is rich with layered harmonies, as well as several standout individual performances.
Set designer Mark Mandenberg has created a richly textured, multi-level abandoned warehouse set, which is home to a coterie of young adult runaways from a rejected middle-class life.
Stuible-Clark does double duty as choreographer, staging of some the best group dancing seen in this area in a long time. Drag queen Angel (Brennan Hattaway), clothed in a Santa teddy, prances like Prince and does an amazing vertical leap onto a 3-foot table — while wearing highheeled shoes. Attaway Hattaway!
Not to be outdone, Ben Cassidy, as Mark, and Alexsandria Clift as Joanne, execute a sizzling and entangling tango to “Tango: Maureen.”
Powerful singing voices abound, including a duet of divas — Clift and Carly Jacobs, as Maureen — belting out “Take Me Or Leave Me.” Jacobs returns later to deliver one of the best parodies of the worst aspects of performance art, one that invites snarky snorts and snickers.
Veteran Riverwalker Stephanie Banghart contributes classic comedic talents in a cameo role as Mark’s phone-in mother.
Trevor Early, as Roger, shows fantastic range. He sings powerfully on the rock tunes in the first act, but also delivers one of play’s the most tender when he mourns his lover Mimi’s near-passing with “Your Eyes.”
These actors remind us that real people lived and died with this disease during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Returning to this musical allows a new generation to better understand the tumult of those years.
The message of “Rent” is best captured in “Seasons of Love,” the simultaneously joyful and mournful anthem that is the thesis of the entire play. We are, all of us, on this earth for only a short time. Life is fleeting, so seize the day. “How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?” We mourn, we remember, we love.
Riverwalk Theatre 7 p.m. Thursday, June 9; 8 p.m. Friday, June 10 and Saturday, June 11; 2 p.m. Sunday, June 12 $22/$20 students, seniors and military Riverwalk Theatre 228 Museum Drive, Lansing. (517) 482-5700, riverwalktheatre.com