‘Rent’ Manila 2024 is More Than a ’90s Throwback

I may have been a ’90s teen through and through, but I wasn’t mature enough to fully understand the story of Rent had I watched it in 1996. The late and great Jonathan Larson’s rock musical is about a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive in Alphabet City, East Village, back in the days of the New York bohemian culture, a decade into the HIV/AIDS crisis.

After premiering off-Broadway in 1996, it went on to win multiple awards, such as the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and became one of the longest-running shows on Broadway. It was adapted into film in 2005, and has been produced around the world, including Manila in 1999, 2001, 2010, and 2011. I remember watching the 2001 version with Rachel Alejandro as Mimi, and still regretful I missed the 2011 version starring some of my theater friends.

As an elder millennial who outlived the rebellious creative rut of her 20s, has actually tried to make it in East Village once upon a time, and has a more progressive understanding of global issues, ‘Rent’ resonates with me more now than the first time I watched it in 2001.

I was invited to 9 Works Theatrical’s press preview on April 18. Rent Manila 2024’s cast is mostly Gen Z and young millennials, some of whom weren’t even born when the musical was first penned. My pressing questions pre-show: Can this 1996 story connect to the younger audience of 2024? If you’ve already seen Rent, whether in a live production or through snippets on TV and social media, can it still work its magic? And for the uninitiated, will this musical tug at their heartstrings?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Robbie Guevara’s modern direction and Mio Infante’s multi-layered scaffolding set design do more than just take you back to ’90s Lower Manhattan. Sure, there are enough vintage gadgets such as the thick-as-a-brick cellular phone, telephone booth, and main character Mark Cohen’s 16mm camera to evoke nostalgia, but they’re not all that will pull ’90s kids like myself to the show.

“The first order of business was, obviously, we can’t present it the same way we did back in 2010 and 2011,” Robbie told the media during rehearsals in March. “How do we redo the material catering to the audience of the day, which are the zillennials? Their way of thinking is very different from just the millennials and the younger Gen-Xers that we knew from that time.”

Mio Infante’s multi-layered scaffolding set design. Jonathan Larson’s ‘Rent’ brought to light the stories of queer young people and misfits during the AIDS epidemic. Sadly, he died at 35 from an aortic dissection the day before ‘Rent’s’ first off-Broadway preview performance.

In the 2024 Manila production of Rent, front and center are the issues of the early- to mid-90s that still ring true today—the HIV/AIDS stigma, drug abuse, poverty, and the struggles of the LGBTQIA community and creative misfits. Some days I feel like the Philippines has progressed a lot since three decades ago, but there are days when I still hear people talking about HIV and the LGBT+ community using derogatory phrases I first heard in the ’80s. So yes, we still need to play the anthems of Rent out loud on our boomboxes for our neighbors to hear.

The original script mentions AIDS just once, with HIV awareness as the backdrop of the material. With Robbie’s 2024 direction, the issues and realities of living with HIV are pushed forward without changing the script. They also tied up with Red Whistle, LoveYourself, and Positive Action Foundation Philippines Inc. to educate the Filipino audience about HIV awareness.

Now for the cast highlights. I’ve been keeping tabs on this restaging since I interviewed Markki Stroem (who plays Benny/Tom), who we featured on the April celebrity spotlight of Smile Magazine. I was also invited to one of the rehearsals to get to know the cast more, which made me more keen about the development of these bohemians.

Kate was here with my cousin Bam, who’s the sound designer of ‘Rent’ Manila 2024.

The standout performer for me was Lance Reblando as Angel Dumott Schunard, the vibrant street musician who radiates light throughout the play. Without spoiling some of the twists and tricks up 9 Works’ sleeve, all I will say is that her performance as an actress, dancer, and singer was a showstopper.

While Angel’s character was originally written to be a gender noncorforming drag queen, Lance told us about her own artistic approach. “Angel is a trans woman, at least for me,” she said during the rehearsals. “It just wasn’t verbalized before, because in the ’90s there were trans women. But no one was straight-up saying, ‘I am a trans woman.’ So at least for me, that’s how I approached her,” she says.

Angel’s love interest, Tom Collins, is played by Garrett Bolden, the gentle giant whose endearing stage presence and soulful vocals will make you blush like Angel. His fellow GMA singers, Anthony Rosaldo and Thea Astley as love interests Roger and Mimi, brought their own flavors to their characters. Anthony’s Teen-Beat-centerfold looks are a match for the sultry Thea Astley, who reminds me of Olivia Munn during her 2000s heartthrob days.

And of course there’s Reb Atadero as Mark Cohen, a filmmaker struggling to find his place in the world. Always bringing his comic antics to the stage, Reb can do no wrong. Not even multiple sound and tech glitches (press previews are like final technical dress rehearsals, after all) could faze this seasoned theater actor.

@replikate Goosebumps! Last night the 2010 cast of "Rent" in Manila joined the 2024 cast onstage to sing “Seasons of Love.” #KateWasHere at the press preview of #RentMNL2024, which officially opens today! Visit @9 Works Theatrical for tickets. @Reb Atadero (IG @rebranger) @Anthony Rosaldo @Thea Astley @Mica Fajardo @Justine Peña @Markkistroem @Guji Lorenzana @Garrett Bolden @Abi Sulit @Jordan Andrews @Chesko Rodriguez @Vyen @Lance Reblando @Adrian Lindayag @Jonjon @Molly Langley @Fay @kai @Antonio Valdez ♬ original sound – Kate Alvarez (KateWasHere.com)

His “tango” with Fay Castro, who plays Joanne Jefferson, the Ivy League-educated lawyer and activist now dating his ex Maureen Johnson, was a hoot! Fay was a strong character onstage with her equally powerful sky-high heels that I could spot from my Row C seat.

The long wait leading to Maureen’s solo number was worth the suspense. It was like watching a romcom where we’re all wondering why two main characters are mad about this one girl, and when her sassy, high-energy character (played by Jasmine Fitzgerald) is revealed, we finally understand why.

The remaining cast—Guji Lorenzana as Mr. Johnson, Abi Sulit as Pam, Jordan Andrews as Gordono, Misha Fabian as Ally, Chesko Rodriguez as as Steve, Kai Banson as Alexi Darling, and Vyen Villanueva as Paul—each stood out in their swing roles. I remember when Kai and a tearful Vyen told us during rehearsals about how they’re fulfilling their dreams of leaving or taking a break from their 9-5 corporate jobs for the arts—almost like a nod to Jonathan Larson’s other masterpiece, Tick, Tick… Boom!. Like a proud Tita, I watched them shine onstage.

It was great to see Markki Stroem play the villain Benny Coffin III, which, as he told me in my article for Smile, has always been his dream theater role. I would’ve loved to see him play the alternate role of Tom, as I’ve seen IG snippets of his kilig-inducing chemistry with Adrian Lindayag, who alternates as Angel.

Speaking of which, this production has alternates for each role—except for Anthony who is the sole actor playing Roger. I would’ve loved to see Justine Peña (who I had the pleasure of working with as my co-talent in a commercial) as Maureen, Molly Langley as Mimi, Ian Pangilinan as Mark, Mica Fajardo as Joanne, and Antonio Valdez as Steve. I guess this means a re-watch is in order.

And of course, how can I not talk about the battle song of Jonathan Larson’s generation, “Seasons of Love,” which, even if I’ve listened to hundreds of times on the radio, on TV, onstage, in social media snippets, and in drunken karaoke parties with friends, still gave me goosebumps when I heard it sung live on the Manila stage with this new group of misfits.

No day but today. ‘Rent’ Manila 2024’s curtain call on day 0 (press preview).

My jaw dropped when Abi Sulit stepped forward mid-song to belt out the famous lyrics, “525,600 minutes, 521,000 journeys to plan. 525,600 minutes, how can you measure the life of a woman or a man?” followed by the cool vocals of Pinoy Big Brother alum, Jordan Andrews. This was my biggest highlight because it proved to me, once and for all, that Rent is still a powerful force after all these decades.

“Rent” runs until June 1, 2024 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati, Philippines. For tickets, follow 9 Works Theatrical on Facebook and Instagram. Tickets range from ₱2,100-4,100. The musical runs for 2 hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.