20 Years of Glory: RENT Celebrates Two Decades at Templeton-Blackburn

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On January 25, 1996, 35-year old Jonathan Larson unexpectedly succumbed to an aortic dissection related to Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder. His abrupt death arrived the same day as the debut preview performance of his musical, which would become defining in stage history: RENT.

The show debuted three months later in April of that year, at a time where the United States found itself firmly within the grip of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The combination of a raging heroin addiction crises and a general lack of knowledge about the disease’s transmission led to AIDS’ recognition as the leading cause of death among Americans 25-44 in 1994, according to the CDC.

Written as a modern take on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La bohéme, RENT captivated audiences with its tale of young bohemians dwelling in the AIDS-ravaged New York City of the ’90s. Its presentation of a disease which had taken so much from the world in so little time combined with Larson’s own untimely death catapulted its success and today, RENT remains inarguably one of the most important musicals in theatrical history.

Its 20th anniversary tour made a stop at Ohio University’s Templeton-Blackburn Memorial Auditorium on March 28, 2017, and comes at a time where America faces its worse opioid crises since the play’s original release. In Ohio alone, the Ohio State Bar Association reports roughly eighteen die weekly of heroin overdose, and many citizens of the state have seen firsthand the devastation caused by the epidemic. Expectedly, some areas have additionally seen a rise in HIV/AIDS transmission as a result, forcing many to remember the world of twenty years ago and what it meant.

The 20th anniversary tour comes enshrouded in nostalgia, both tragic and sentimental. Katy Lammark brought all the fire in her portrayal of the bisexual avant-garde temptress Maureen Collins that Idina Menzel originated in the ’96 original Broadway production. Similarly, Danny Harris Kornfeld’s performance as the aspiring filmmaker Mark proved haunting as he channeled Anthony Rapp (original Broadway cast, ’05 film).

Applause and familiarity from the audience opened and closed most scenes, with an aura of nostalgia permeating the atmosphere. Other notable performances included David Merino as the ever lovely street-drumming drag queen Angel, Aaron Harrington as his Ivy-League teaching anarchist lover Tom Collins, and Jasmine Easler as Joanne, a lawyer and the controlling girlfriend of Maureen.

Both Merino and Lammark’s tour-de-force performances sparked in comparison to Skyler Volpe’s as Mimi, the beloved exotic dancer and (complicated) romantic interest of struggling musician Roger (Kaleb Wells) and pseudo-antagonist double-dealing landlord Benny (Christian Thompson). For a production so heavily revolving around reminiscence, at times Volpe’s performance lacked a connection, if only in the slightest.

If anything, the show came as a stark reminder of the world of today. While HIV transmission as a whole has plummeted in the years since the shows debut, the startling number of fatalities from the opioid crises has reminded many of the catastrophic number of lives lost throughout the ’80s and ’90s due to HIV/AIDS.

The tour will continue nationwide, concluding at The National Theatre in Washington, D.C. on July 7. Additional national dates and tickets can be found at