‘Rent’ rocks Shea’s

Buffalo rendition introduces new generation to the pioneering musical

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“Rent” is touring 20 years after it first opened and its themes are just as relevant today.

From Tuesday to Sunday, Shea’s Performing Arts Center hosted a 20th anniversary touring production of Jonathan Larson’s rock musical “Rent.”

The show, a reimagining of Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème,” chronicles a year in the lives of seven struggling artists in New York City. HIV-positive characters, including musician Angel, dancer Mimi, philosopher Collins and wannabe-rockstar Roger, express the importance of friendship and love in the face of fear. 

Although the show debuted on Broadway in the mid-1990s, its depiction of life touched by homelessness, gentrification and the HIV/AIDS epidemic remains relevant. While the show reflects the reality of 1980s New York City, its themes speak to a broader and more timely audience. 

Many of the show’s economic worries resonate with Buffalo’s current fiscal and social reality, audience members said. Paul Marotta, an Amherst native, drew comparisons to UB’s Living Stipend Movement.

“When I was growing up, [Buffalo] had mobility. Now, it’s taxing to survive as a student, educator or artisan,” Marotta said. 

Early in the show’s second act, there is a death scene reminiscent of an orgy. In a triumph of set design, chants for “leather, rubber, and latex” emerge from beneath white sheets. Here, a death from AIDS-related complications is rewritten as a celebration of life and sexual freedom. 

Paul Clay’s inventive set design brought new depth to Shea’s mainstage, as it positions performers among a scramble of New York City rooftops and fire escapes. LED-engineering recreated images of Christmas trees, snowfall and candle light throughout the show. Performers frequently climb to the heights of the theater’s vaulted ceiling, sometimes provoking audience participation. 

Clay captures protagonist Mark’s documentary film work by projecting film on the landscaped surface of Shea’s mainstage. Later, those projectors are turned around to spotlight members of the audience.

Costume designer Angela Wendt adorns performers in a mix of pastel-latex and scratchy-flannel thrift, capturing the diverse styles of New York City’s avant-garde. Wendt references a transitional period of fashion and encapsulates the decline of 1980’s camp and the rise of ‘90s grunge. 

In addition to its sex-positive themes, the show is committed to inspiring concrete community activism.

After the final scene, lead actor Logan Marks drew attention to the WNED/WBFO Artie Awards that recognizes excellence in theatre arts while raising funds for the HIV/AIDS & Immunodeficiency Clinic at Erie County Medical Center. Last year’s awards raised $40,000 in funding for HIV/AIDS-related research.

“Every year the Arties partner with a charity committed to ending immunodeficiency. No donation is too big, or too small,” Marks said. 

Despite the show’s coarse language and graphic references to sex, “Rent” remains powerful. 

John Madsen is an arts staff writer can be reached at arts@ubspectrum.com.