Rent at the Westchester Broadway Theatre

Sure, it’s all about living a gritty, artist’s life in New York City, but the musical Rent is just as much about the suburbs as it is about the city—at least in subtext. In fact, you can trace its genesis to Westchester: creator Jonathan Larson is from White Plains and went to White Plains High School (and original cast members Adam Pascal and Jesse L. Martin also lived in Westchester).

In the show, a group of artists give up their suburban roots to live a bohemian lifestyle in Alphabet City, squatting in an almost-abandoned building. But their suburban roots keep popping up to haunt them, questioning their authenticity. Mark, for example, tries to avoid his past by never returning phone calls from his mother. (“Happy New Year from Scarsdale!” she chirps into the phone—after he admits that he learned to tango at the Scarsdale JCC.) Joanne—the only one among them who is gainfully employed—has her privilege pointed out when her parents leave a message telling her she can reach them in Pound Ridge. Then, when Maureen does something untoward, Mark takes great pains to remind her that she is, of course, from Long Island.

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It doesn’t seem like a loving portrayal of the suburbs—that they’re a shameful part of one’s past that must be repressed at all costs. But I don’t really see it that way. I see it as Larson saying that once you grow up in the suburbs, they’ll always be a part of you (no matter how hard you try to deny it).

At least, that’s the way it was in the 1990s. Around the time of Rent’s closing, there was lots of press about how dated it seemed for a relatively new show. Not in a bad way, but the grunge fashions and references to AZT, the fear of “selling out,” and “cyber” culture root the show firmly in 1996, when it opened. (Imagine what Larson would have thought of Facebook.) I’ve heard the show referred to as a “period piece” more than once.

But I think Rent deserves more credit for being ahead-of-the-curve when it comes to pinpointing other ephemera that went on to be pervasive in popular culture. I’m not saying that it’s responsible for these trends, but the beginnings of them can be traced back to around that time. They include: striped scarves (where do you think Harry Potter got them from?); square, black-framed glasses (soon after required for the hipster uniform); reality television (Mark’s “script-less” film about 20-somethings doing nothing—maybe he invented mumblcore, too); and the idea that living in Alphabet City is cool and bohemian instead of dirty and dangerous (let’s not even think about how much rent there is today).

So, with all that—in the show’s parlance—”baggage,” how does the production fare at the Westchester Broadway Theatre, where it opened last week? Pretty great, actually.

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The production is an easy one to transport, since the staging doesn’t require much: a set that looks like an empty warehouse-turned-squat, and a few multi-purpose tables. The Westchester Broadway Theatre clears this easily.

The energy and the emotion of the show are much harder to imitate. (After all, it’s a fine line between the characters in Rent and a bunch of whiny, freeloading hipsters. Get a day job and get off my lawn, you bums!) The cast pulls it off beautifully, with a number of strong voices in the cast, including Andy Kelso (Mark), Gabrielle Reid (Joanne), Angelo Rios (Tom Collins), and Sara Ruzicka (Maureen). But it really is an ensemble show, and when mayhem erupts on stage with cast members singing parts in different directions, it reminds you why “La Vie Bohème” shot to No. 1 on the party playlists of theater nerds. They may not be the best technical dancers, but the spirit is there, and it’s enough.

But it’s not all just a party. The characters in Rent deal with some heaviness, especially in scenes concerning those living with HIV/AIDS. Even though the disease is not the death sentence it was once considered—part of the reason the show’s been called a “period piece”—but the cast manages to get across the fear and anguish associated with AIDS at the time. Much of the credit here goes to Rios’s Tom Collins, whose soulful baritone is the heart of the show.

Sure, there are some judicious edits made to the production. (“Contact,” for example—one of Angel’s numbers, and a pretty sexually explicit one—was scrapped from the show entirely.) But none of the cuts really change the intention of the show or its ability to deliver an emotional punch. We may be in Westchester, but our sensibilities aren’t that delicate.

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Westchester Broadway Theatre
1 Broadway Plz, Elmsford (914) 592-2222
The show runs through September 25.

Photos by John Vecchiolla

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