Review: Rent at Footlite Musicals

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Those old Doc Martens you haven’t worn since the 1997 Lilith Fair are back in style again—if only for this weekend, the final showings of Rent at Footlite Musicals. (For the record, wearing them to the theater would amount to a tribute, not irony. And rain on your wedding day is just bad luck.)

Packed houses turned out for opening weekend July 12-15 at Hedback Theatre, an intimate downtown venue with roomy crushed-velvet seats, and a portion of the ample proceeds from several shows yielded donations to the Indiana AIDS Fund and the Damien Center’s youth outreach program, Team Damien.

Not bad for a cast of young actors who weren’t even in middle school when Rent made its Broadway debut in 1996. Footlite chose to make Rent a young-adult production, with most principals in their early 20s. To get in touch with the era that the musical captures—basically Friends, with a heavy dose of reality about living conditions and HIV—each cast member researched the cultural references mentioned in “La Vie Boheme,” one of the show’s most iconic songs. Places like Life Cafe, a New York City hangout favored by Rent creator Jonathan Larson.

Thankfully, Gigi Aldridge, a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, found a way to spend the summer in Indy to take the key role of Mimi, a sassy stripper who stands up for her downtrodden, AIDS-stricken drifter friends. Damon Clevenger as Angel, a drag queen with a heart the size of Times Square, brings the biggest laughs and tears. Andrea Heiden as Maureen, a fiery entertainer, holds nothing back in a bombastic performance that breaks through the storyline’s angst and ache. At one point, Heiden easily cajoles the audience to “moo” along with her during a number.

Associate producer Tim Thompson is among those who remember the first time they saw Rent (he was only 11 or 12 years old) and know every word and inflection of the original. Thompson thinks those who consider Rent sacred will come away satisfied with Footlite’s adherence to authenticity. For instance, he says, the ensemble cast forms a line sing “Seasons of Love” (“Five-hundred, twenty-five thousand, six-hundred minutes …”) instead of scattering around the stage. He cites the “La Vie Boheme” choreography, down to the cast members’ hands and shoulders, as nearly identical to how it was performed on Broadway. “If we would have changed that,” Thompson says, “I would have heard about it.”

I’d never seen Rent before, so I’ll take Thompson at his word. As a first-timer, I had expected more’90sera flashbacks than an answering machine, a couple of Doc Martens references, and what must have been Structure’s best-selling sweater. But the most important memory—the devastating effects of AIDS and how little awareness existed before Rent changed everything—came flooding back.

[UPDATE, July 19] Remaining shows: July 19-21, sold out. (Buy tickets here. Friday tix benefit the Indiana AIDS Fund; buy here.)

Photos courtesy Footlite Musicals

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