Another season of love with Rent

LANCE REBLANDO as Angel; Reb Atadero as Mark

By Brontë H. Lacsamana, Reporter

Theater ReviewRentBy Jonathan LarsonDirected by Robbie GuevaraPresented by 9 Works Theatrical

ON Christmas Eve, filmmaker Mark Cohen and musician Roger David once again find themselves cold and broke in the middle of the harsh Manhattan winter. The rent is due on the old apartment they live in, owned by their former roommate Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III.

Not helping matters for Mark is the fact that his ex, performance artist Maureen, has moved on — with lesbian lawyer Joanne. Meanwhile, Roger is still unable to write a great song, although he forms a connection with Mimi, a club dancer struggling with drug addiction. The same chilly night also sees their friend, professor Tom Collins, get mugged and nursed back to health by drag queen Angel.

As all of this unfolds, the cast of characters try to navigate poverty, loss, new love, and the pursuit of happiness, all in the shadow of HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

Except it isn’t so much a shadow in this latest version by 9 Works Theatrical. At the preview night of the company’s current staging of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, it is clear that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is a major focus.

“The biggest change in this staging is that we decided to put HIV and AIDS front and center instead of having it as the musical’s backdrop,” said director Robbie Guevara in an opening speech. This is done through ensemble characters having brief scenes where they deal with AIDS symptoms.

Even the halls of the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium have booths manned by organizations like Love Yourself, Inc., The Red Whistle, and Positive Foundation Philippines, all spreading awareness about HIV/AIDS. Theatergoers have the chance to learn about the illness and its treatments.

When the curtains rise, Mio Infante’s towering set looms over the audience. It gives the characters a vast playground to work with, as they move up and down and through the three storeys of scaffolding.

Rent relies heavily on its cast, so it pays to come see the show maybe twice to experience it with different actors and alternates. For preview night, Reb Atadero played Mark, Anthony Rosaldo played Roger, Jasmine Fitzgerald took on the role of Maureen while Fay Castro was Joanne, Thea Astley was Mimi, Garrett Bolden was Tom Collins, Lance Reblando was Angel, and Markki Stroem played Benny.

Mr. Atadero owned the stage as the filmmaker Mark, who is essentially the narrator of the whole story as he documents the cast’s ordeals on camera. His interactions are a highlight, as his energetic and passionate role has him shifting from one point of the stage to the next.

It’s a powerful, frenetic musical that traverses extreme highs and heavy lows, held together by the chemistry of the entire ensemble. Mr. Rosaldo’s Roger is the quintessential rock band frontman in both look and vocal ability, working in tandem with Ms. Astley’s moving turn as the flirtatious Mimi (most impactful in their duet “Light My Candle”).

Meanwhile, Ms. Fitzgerald and Ms. Castro as the hot-and-cold lesbian couple Maureen and Joanne were a delight to watch. The former gave an awesome rendition of the performance piece “Over the Moon,” but both really found their star power in the fiery duet “Take Me or Leave Me.”

The most unforgettable performance was Ms. Reblando’s as Angel. Angel is a transwoman in this version, and she oozed confidence and talent in both singing and dancing. Using aerial silk movements, “Contact” easily became the most breathtaking moment in the musical. Her chemistry with Mr. Bolden’s kind, soulful Tom Collins was palpable.

Though Rent first premiered off-Broadway 28 years ago, its many iterations onstage and onscreen have cemented its legacy. Back in 2011, 9 Works Theatrical staged it for the first time, and the original cast were in attendance at the preview, watching the new generation of actors take on the roles they know so well.

The power of the show has survived the years. To witness “La Vie Boheme” and “Seasons of Love” unfold before your eyes is to develop goosebumps all over your body. It’s as iconic as you’d imagine, and more.

While Rent shows the struggles and sordid sicknesses that the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer plus) community had to face in the 1990s, it also revels in their happiest hours and most beautiful human experiences. In 2024, HIV/AIDS still exists, but so does accessible treatment. People still find it difficult to pay rent and urban poverty is as rampant as ever. But the main takeaway of this story never changes — the expansive yet intimate sense of community.

Rent runs until June 1 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati City. Tickets, ranging from P2,000 to P4,000, are available via Ticket2Me.