The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Review | Illinois Theatre puts on spectacular, emotional performance of ‘Rent’

Photo courtesy of Craig Pessman
“Rent” musical performance held at Virginia Theatre by Illinois Theatre from Oct. 26-28.

“Rent,” a Broadway musical with music, lyrics and book by Jonathan Larson, ran at the Virginia Theatre from Oct. 26-28. The production was put on by Illinois Theatre and co-directed by Lisa Gaye Dixon and J.W. Morrissette.

The musical follows eight residents of Lower Manhattan’s East Village over the course of a year. 

Roger and Mark are roommates and struggling artists, Tom is a queer man dating transgender woman Angel, Maureen is a promiscuous performance artist dating Ivy League-educated lawyer Joanne, Mimi is a drug-addicted stripper and Benny is the scummy landlord of Roger and Mark.

“Rent” is a musical known for its at-the-time inclusivity. It takes place in the mid-to-late ’80s, and out of the eight main characters, four are queer. It’s also explicitly stated that three of the eight — Roger, Mimi and Angel — have HIV/AIDS and are dying.

This places a dark tone on the musical. There are many lighthearted scenes, but there’s always the sickening, upsetting knowledge that this friend group will not last forever. 

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Adding to the darker metanarrative of this musical, Larson passed away from an aortic dissection the night before the production was set to premiere off-Broadway. 

Illinois Theatre’s production brought Larson’s tragic story to life. I felt at times like I wasn’t even watching people acting — I was watching the story of eight New Yorkers in the ’80s. 

Every actor was incredible, but the actors who played the characters who had HIV/AIDS brought these people to life. 

Watching Elizabeth Ruiz-Goranson, junior in FAA, play Mimi was incredible. In act one, Mimi is high and sings “Out Tonight” while moving around the stage in an almost feral manner. Her stage presence is remarkable.

Later, Mimi will cry on the floor after doing a drug deal. She’ll also nearly die at the end.

Ruiz-Goranson showed impressive range and was nothing short of fantastic in this role. 

Anthony Maggio, senior in FAA, played Roger. His acting was entirely seamless — I was not watching an actor, I was watching Roger on a stage. 

There were moments when he was in the background of scenes, not talking, and I could tell he was still in character. Little things like his posture and what he was doing with his hands indicated that every second Maggio was on stage, he was Roger. 

His musical numbers, especially “One Song (Glory),” shared this sentiment. I was watching Roger in anguish, desperately trying to find meaning in his soon-to-end life. 

And Angel — my goodness. She was played by AJ Paramo, a University alumn who graduated with a bachelor’s in acting in 2022. 

Angel is a larger-than-life character, a person filled with joy, energy and brightness. Paramo really, really put on the performance of a lifetime. Their ability to effortlessly embody Angel and everything she stands for is nothing short of magnificent. 

Angel had multiple dance numbers, and Paramo left my jaw dropped every time. They are a wonderful dancer, a talent complemented well by their rich and velvety singing voice.

Though Ruiz-Goranson, Maggio and Paramo left a strong impression, every other actor was talented as well.

Grania McKirdie, senior in FAA who played Maureen, presented a wonderfully bizarre and well-acted monologue as part of her number Over the Moon.

Additionally, the side characters took advantage of their fleeting moments in the spotlight and gave it their all. 

While the acting was very good, the music in “Rent” felt a little secondary. It felt like in every moment that the characters were singing, attention was drawn to their actions and the song’s relevance to the plotline more so than the actual performance of the music. 

All musical numbers were performed adequately, but most did not wow me. 

Credit goes to Maggio for his incredible performance in “One Song (Glory)” and Ruiz-Goranson for her dedicated delivery of “Out Tonight.” Both had good vocals that elevated the power of the scene, but again, the true gems were their acting.

The choreography in the musical — which was minimal — felt forced, and the actors were rarely in sync with each other. Two actors would be waving their arms around, and one’s arms would move a second before the other, creating a disjointed-looking performance. It’s possible this was a stylistic choice, but that was not apparent.

The production as a whole was very good. Every actor performed seamlessly and brought Larson’s magnum opus musical to life. I’d like to think he’d be proud, rest his soul. 

This musical filled me with joy during scenes where the group was together, bonding over common struggles. It made my heart hurt and tears well in my eyes when Angel died. It made my eyes widen in disbelief when Maureen stood on a table and mooned the audience. It hit a little close to home when the group started splitting up, making me empathize with the characters. It made me shift in my seat uncomfortably when all the actors had fake sex with each other during “Contact.”

This is an incredibly well-written musical, kudos to Larson — but also, kudos to the Illinois Theatre department. Kudos to the actors. Kudos to Gaye Dixon, whose last production with the University was this one, right here. 

Anne Kolaczkowski-Magee, the production’s dramaturg, summarizes the importance of this musical best in her dramaturg’s note. 

“In the closing moments of ‘Rent,’ the ensemble sings ‘Give into love, or live in fear. No other path, no other way,’” Kolaczowski-Magee wrote. “The popularity of ‘Rent’ brought marginalized people into America’s living rooms and asked those inhabitants to choose love. They are still asking.”


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Hi! My name is Kiran Bond and I'm a junior majoring in journalism and minoring in informatics. I started writing for The Daily Illini in the features section back in early 2022, before coming to buzz. I'm very passionate about music and journalism, so buzz editor is an awesome position for me! In my free time, I'm usually doing something musical! I'm in the Women's Glee Club choir and I play piano and guitar. I'm also probably listening to Fall Out Boy or another pop-punk or post-hardcore band. For any inquiries, feel free to reach out to me at !
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