Measured in love: Rent at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Broadway Across Canada brought the Tony Award-winning musical to Vancouver this September

Rent first premiered in New York City in 1996. Image courtesy of Amy Boyle / Broadway Across Canada.

04/10/2019: This story was corrected from an older version. The previous version stated that Mimi was played by Kelsee Sweigard, Maureen was played by Lexi Greene, and Collins was played by Juan Luis Espinal. Mimi was portrayed by Aiyana Smash, Maureen was portrayed by Kelsee Sweigard, and Collins was portrayed by Shafiq Hicks.

By: Kelly Chia, Staff Writer

I went to the opening night of Broadway Across Canada’s production of Rent on Tuesday, September 17. My first thoughts after watching the musical felt like a deep exhale from some locked part of myself — I hadn’t seen love displayed in such a tender way in a while. I was thoroughly impressed by the performance, if a little weepy afterwards.

Rent is set in 1980s New York City, when the AIDS epidemic was merciless. As the audience, we find out quite early on that many of the main characters have HIV. What is especially poignant about Rent is that AIDS isn’t initially the driving plot of the show, but a looming backdrop. It helps to centre the love stories in Rent, and they unfurl unsteadily because the characters know that their futures are uncertain. The audience knows this, too, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. But for the first act, we are all allowed to forget it.

The first act was a wild ride of bohemian liveliness. Aiyana Smash delivered a spectacular performance as Mimi, and is particularly impressive in “Out Tonight,” where she expertly straddled the stair railings on the set and absolutely killed the song. Kelsee Sweigard also did a magnificent job as Maureen in “Over the Moon.” She engaged with the audience and asked us to moo at one point, which was done in the service of giving the middle finger to capitalist pigs. It was spectacular.

While the entire first act takes place over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the second act drives over the subsequent year quickly. Suddenly, the time that felt so thorough and enjoyable in the first act becomes the factor that makes these relationships deteriorate. It all suddenly feels too short.

Angel, portrayed by Joshua Tavares, and Collins, portrayed by Shafiq Hicks, are introduced to us as a couple in the first act. The two have a stable relationship, but as Angel’s health gets significantly worse in the second act, the gravity of their situation becomes apparent. Tavares and Hicks did an excellent job of conveying the couple’s closeness.

Meanwhile, Maureen and Joanne (Samantha Mbolekwa) realize the polar differences in their personalities. “Take Me or Leave Me” is an explosive number that is as playful as Maureen’s character; Sweigard and Mbolekwa had amazing harmonies here. Even though they break up during this song, we later see that they miss each other in “Without You.”

The musical proceeds with the group coping with Angel’s death and grappling with Mimi’s illness as it progresses from HIV to AIDS. Mimi’s partner Roger (Coleman Cummings) cannot bear seeing her health deteriorate, and this painful dynamic was really what pulled at my heartstrings. The play comes back around to Christmas Day, and the ensemble of homeless people remind the audience that nothing has changed for them they still don’t have a place to go as the snow starts falling. The second act hits hard with the reality of the characters’ situations, and the cast did an amazing job of expressing these emotional gut punches.

Even through the characters’ harsh circumstances, Rent is a lesson about how love is the most reliable constant in difficult times, be it platonic or romantic. The musical teaches us to be vulnerable and connected with our loved ones, and to always understand their worth. For the characters that don’t have much time left, this is crucial for maintaining a happy relationship as seen by Angel and Collins, who are presented as the happiest couple. Overall, the cast of Rent did an amazing job, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to see this musical.