“Rent” continues to spotlight society’s issues

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It’s hard to believe that it’s been two decades since the groundbreaking production of “Rent” entered our social and pop culture consciousness. As the 20th anniversary tour makes its stop at the Aronoff Center this week, the musical reminds us how things have changed since the 1990s (the timeframe in which it is set) and how much things have not.

As a reminder, the story surrounds young New Yorkers, including a filmmaker, would-be musician, attorney and more, who face eviction from their abandoned industrial building. But that’s just one issue they face in their lives and loves, as the AIDS epidemic is a subplot especially for Roger, who is HIV-positive, and Angel, who has full-blown AIDS. With its basis from the storyline of “La Boheme,” “Rent” shows the hopes, the tragedies and the conflicts facing this group (besides the fact that they’re trying to pay the rent).

The signature song from “Rent,” of course, is “Seasons of Love,” (525,600 minutes) reflecting how much things changed during a year of their lives. But some things haven’t changed, even in 20 years, like the housing crisis. While the show is set inside what looks to be an abandoned warehouse, it brings to mind the fatal fire two years ago in Oakland, where 36 died in a similar building that was converted into makeshift living quarters and an artist collective. The problem of affordable housing still exists.

So, too, does the drug epidemic, which is referenced more than once in the show as a dealer stops by from time to time to feed their addictions. And, of course, the age-old problems of young professionals trying to find their way and follow their dreams while paying the bills never seem to change.

There are some anachronisms that fit the time period but jolt the present-day viewer, such as the pay phone, answering machine and the squeegee guy (younger viewers might not remember how the squeegee nuisance plagued drivers in the 1980s and early ‘90s). But the music stands the test of time as a powerful storyteller, reflecting the loves, losses and conflicts within this group.

Logan Marks as the filmmaker and Logan Farine as the musician lead the cast, with Lyndie Moe jumping off the stage as Maureen and her showstopping performance of “Over the Moon.” Aaron Alcaraz as the doomed Angel also gives an empathetic, heartbreaking performance.

Perhaps the one thing that has changed with this tour of “Rent:” When I saw it during its inaugural run in Cincinnati, about 20 percent of the audience walked out at intermission. This time, hardly anyone (if anyone) did. We’ve learned that this storyline is too important, and too relevant, to ignore.  

“Rent” runs at the Aronoff Center from now through December 23. For tickets, visit www.cincinnatiarts.org.

Jackie Reau