A Tale of Two Cities

Review by Sean McQuaid

Cast of RENT

Florence Simmons Performance Hall
April 11, 2024

In publicizing its revival of the late Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical RENT, ACT (A Community Theatre) has noted how modern PEI’s homelessness problem echoes the challenges faced by New Yorkers in this classic show. True enough, though that’s only part of how late 20th Century New York City and early 21st Century Charlottetown have begun to overlap. 

Charlottetown has changed a lot since RENT’s off-Broadway debut (followed by a long Broadway run, Pulitzer and Tony Awards, a movie adaptation and assorted revivals). That’s partly the dark side of progress, as PEI’s growing capital drifts into big-city problems like housing shortages; but Charlottetown is also more multicultural and diverse than it was decades ago, including a larger and more visible 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Today’s PEI capital looks and feels much more like Larson’s milieu than 1990s Charlottetown ever did, so the musical seems timelier and more accessible for Island audiences now than it might have in its heyday. 

Set in late 1980s Manhattan and loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s classic 1896 opera La bohème, RENT depicts lower-class East Village artists struggling to pay the bills while dealing with urban gentrification, rising rents, drug addiction, romantic entanglements, artistic dilemmas and the encroaching menace of AIDS. Alternately raucous and bleak but always alive, it’s a coarse, earthy, funny, sometimes moving story with memorable tunes like contemplative earworm “Seasons of Love” (the “525,600 minutes” song), performed well here. 

Directed by Maggie Wright with musical direction by Jamie Feinberg and choreography by Charlee Whitty, ACT’s impressive, entertaining production features an impressionistic, multi-location jumble of a set that’s both visually engaging (especially its radiant, larger-than-life moon) and logistically functional. There’s a lot of moving parts here, all meshing smoothly under the guidance of the directors, Whitty and stage manager Sarah Bruce.

Chief among those moving parts is a big cast of 18 actors playing 34 roles. Well-directed, they move easily through the set’s convoluted nooks and crannies, always engaged: up front or in the background, animated or idle, they all inhabit their parts large and small with focus and purpose throughout. 

The eight key cast members, the ones whose roles are big enough that they play only one part, are mostly superb. Hayden Lysecki exudes easy, comedic everyman charm as indie filmmaker Mark, Jeremy Hickey is moodily intense as struggling musician Roger, Rebekah Brown is alluringly compelling as troubled dancer Mimi, Ryan Whitty is equally deft with both comedy and tragedy as ramshackle academic Collins, Colin Hood is suitably sour as petty landlord Benny, and Nicole Brenner is a bristling ball of frustration as tightly-wound lawyer Joanne, the long-suffering girlfriend of flirtatious, exhibitionist performance artist Maureen, played to scene-stealing perfection by a luminously magnetic, oft-hilarious Allegra Wright. [The role of Angel was played by Lucas Panizzi].

Carter Baird, Jenn Carson, Maryanne Fitzpatrick, Sydney Innis, Keir Malone, Carter McDevitt, Eden McFadden, Melanie Murray, Valerie Reddin and Megan Stewart offer solid support in the smaller parts, notably ACT mainstay Malone’s adroit versatility as five different characters and Stewart making a crowd-pleasing, full-course meal of her bite-size scenes as unscrupulous tabloid journalism executive Alexi Darling. 

The show has occasional audibility issues in terms of dialogue or lyrics getting lost in the rocking soundscape of Feinberg’s small-but-mighty pit band; but the audio balance finds the right mix more often that not, ensuring that ACT’s RENT mostly sounds as good as it looks.