By Victoria L. Dammer

When a musical’s first song brings loud applause after the beginning lines, the audience knows they’re about to experience an exceptional performance, and that’s what happened when Rent opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse this weekend.

Known as one of the longest-running musicals on Broadway, thanks to the music, lyrics, and book by Jonathan Larson, Rent is a rock musical based on the 1896 opera La bohème by Giacomo Puccini, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. Larson’s work is the antithesis to Puccini’s setting for La bohème; La bohème was set in the grandeur of Paris, while Larson’s characters are enduring the harsh elements of living in poverty and fighting an all-to-often deadly disease. But all this backstory doesn’t prevent theatergoers from enjoying the show’s transforming music, dancing, and dialogue.

Set in Lower Manhattan East Village, Rent tells the sad, painful, yet sweet story of struggling young artists living in bohemian Alphabet City in the 1990s. The plague of HIV/Aids affects their young lives, a disease so prevalent then, but something we cannot dismiss today as having changed the lives of everyone it touched.

Winner of a Pulitzer for Drama, a Tony Award for Best Musical, and Best Score, among others, Larson did not live to see the show get all its success. He still gifted those in attendance with the magical words he left behind.

The company opened with Rent, the musical’s namesake tune, and it was a powerful presentation that resonated throughout the theater. The song may not be one of the most memorable in the lengthy list of hits in the show, but it laid the groundwork for what the audience could expect as the story unfolded.

In You Okay, Honey?, drag queen Angel (Olivia Lux) and anarchist Collins (Terrance Johnson) meet on the streets, starting their relationship, which is an integral part of the program, as they both have AIDS. Erotic dancer Mimi (Alisa Melendez), HIV positive, tries to seduce a reluctant down-on-his-luck songwriter Roger (Matt Rodin), also HIV positive, in the song Light My Candle. Filmmaker Mark, played by Zachary Noah Piser who recently appeared in Broadway’s KPOP, performed a magnificent dance with lesbian lawyer Joanne (Leana Rae Concepcion), showing off their expertise in step to Tango Maureen. The talent on stage electrified the audience.

Mimi sang a howling, sexy Out Tonight, and the applause was deafening.

In the second act, the iconic hit song of the show Seasons of Love, sung by the entire repertoire, begging humanity to measure the minutes of a year with love. The song gives pause to the importance of every minute of your life. Maureen (Mackenzie Meadows) and Joanne sang Take Me or Leave Me, a haunting heartbreaker at its best. In Finale/Your Eyes, the entire company sings and gathers as happiness and survival combine in their lives, and they all learn the lesson that “there is no day but today.”

The standing ovation reaffirmed the reason Rent has been and will continue to be a success on stage.

Rent, book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, now playing at the Paper Mill Playhouse through July 2nd. Starring Jordan Barrow, Leana Rae Concepcion, Terrance Johnson, Olivia Lux, Mackenzie Meadows, Alisa Melendez, Zachary Noah Piser, and Matt Rodin.

Producing Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee; Executive Director Mike Stotts; Musical arrangements by Steve Skinner; Original concept and additional lyrics by Billy Aronson; Musical supervisor Tim Weil; Dramaturg by Lynn Thomson; Musical direction by Amanda Morton; choreograped by Steph Paul; Directed by Zi Alikhan. Press by The Press Room.

The Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ. Tickets available at Purchase Tickets – Paper Mill Playhouse