The musical Rent put on by Theatre 55 at St. Paul's Gremlin Theatre

Review: The “Rent” Generation, Now in Their 60s, Redefine “La Vie Boheme” at Theatre 55

Audience participation at the theater is tough to get right. I can recall times it detracted from a show and times it was an amusing but unnecessary add-on, but I can’t remember a time when it actually benefited a musical or play in any substantial way, at least until Wednesday night at the Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul. 

At around 9:45 p.m., I found myself standing on my feet, clapping my hands, and unabashedly singing “Seasons of Love” from Rent with 100 or so other theatergoers. I concede that this may be standard procedure at many productions of Rent around the country, but this one, running through February 11, is no standard take on Jonathan Larson’s generation-defining musical. This Rent is put on by Theatre 55, which stages shows in the Twin Cities with actors 55 years old and up. If Larson were alive today, he’d be 63. 

The “Seasons of Love” curtain call didn’t feel natural because I had necessarily been blown away by the most talented performers or the most riveting production, but because the 20-person cast laid it all out on that small thrust stage in a way I’ve never seen before. While Rent may seem commonplace in the theatrical landscape due to its immense popularity, it’s still an emotional and vocal marathon: an almost sung-through musical that deals with issues like the HIV/AIDS crisis, drug use, and homelessness while weaving in full-speed, tongue-twisting anthems and tear-jerking eulogies. It’s a tough show. But the performers here, instead of relying on youthful vigor (and fresh musical theater degrees), drew on hard-won life experiences and the unexpected opportunity to play characters they wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to explore at this age. 

They gave it their all in that intimate theater, and I wanted to join them in their triumph — and so, apparently, did the rest of the audience who all found themselves on their feet. 

I’m a massive fan of Rent — which follows a group of artists and bohemians in NYC’s East Village in the early ‘90s — so much so that I was anticipating just about every word before the performers sang it. As such, it was that much more obvious when a lyric was flubbed, a singer opted out of a high note, or an entrance was missed, all of which happened in this production. However, because Theatre 55’s main mission is to “enrich the lives of elders as artists, audiences, and lifelong learners through theatre performance and education,” not necessarily compete with the most exceptional companies in the Twin Cities, the standout performances here were that much more surprising. 

One of the first actors on stage is Gary David Keast, who plays the heavy-hearted, HIV-positive rocker Roger. There’s a joke among certain fans of Rent that Roger’s song at the end, the one he’s working on throughout the entire show, is kind of a sappy letdown. Yet Keast’s take on “Your Eyes,” sung while holding his dying girlfriend Mimi (Lisa Ramos), is as searing as I’ve ever heard it. He does Roger’s gritty vocals justice throughout the show, but this song in particular gripped the audience. Bebe Keith as Maureen Johnson had the entire Gremlin Theatre mooing like cows after her show-stopping rendition of “Over the Moon,” a piece of experimental protest art. Rik Kutcher (as Tom Collins) and Lawrence Hutera (Angel Dumott Schunard) also infused this production with warmth and depth through their characters’ ill-fated love. 

Enjoying the bonfire at Lake Monster Brewing Company in St. Paul with a beer in hand
Enjoying a handcrafted beer made at a local brewery (Lake Monster Brewing, which is in the same building as the Gremlin Theatre).

In a wonderful story in The Star Tribune, Jenna Ross wrote about the new levels of meaning this production of Rent offers both the audiences and the cast. “Kutcher…has lived with HIV since a decade before the musical’s Broadway premiere in 1996,” she wrote. Meanwhile, Hutera is 73, and he still twirls around in Angel’s requisite Santa costume in “Today 4 U.”

If you’re an astute listener, you’ll find newly resonant lines littered throughout the show. “Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care?” “Time flies / And then no need to endure anymore.” “Without you / Life goes on / But I’m gone.” The new lens through which director and producer Richard Hitchler shows us this show you thought you knew is not all melancholy, though. In Roger and Mimi’s duet “Light My Candle,” Keast sings, “You look like you’re 16.” Ramos responds, “I’m 19, but I’m old for my age.”

It’d be easy to call what Theatre 55 is doing here “nontraditional casting” and leave it at that. Upon seeing it in person, this highly ambitious but still barebones theater company is doing something much more radical. When was the last time you watched a 70-year-old perform on stage? (I’m not talking about a celebrity whose money has shielded them from the normal effects of aging.) What about a piece of entertainment that was entirely performed by people in their mid-50s, 60s and 70s? This is the target audience for live theater, yet they’re strangely underrepresented among the artists. If you think the art form is strictly a young person’s game, tell that to the woman in this ensemble dancing on the table in a crop top during “La Vie Boheme.”

Ah, that’s right, you can’t tell her, because if you don’t have a ticket to see Theatre 55’s Rent, you’re out of luck. It’s completely sold out. The good news? Hitchler already has their next show set for the summer: A Chorus Line. Like I said, ambitious. 

Rent

Theatre 55
Gremlin Theatre
550 Vandalia Street, Suite 177 
St. Paul, MN 55114

Playing through February 11, 2023
Learn more here

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