If you like rock music, you'll probably like "Rent," the late Jonathan Larson's 1996 musical inspired by Puccini's great opera, "La Boheme." If you don't like rock music, you're in for a long night, especially if you aren't accustomed to the ear-shattering amplification that seems to be de rigueur with rock.
Nevertheless, this Broadway phenomenon, winner of both the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize, has its merits. One is the intriguing way that Larson adapted the opera's libretto. He changed the setting from the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 19th century to New York City's East Village in the late 20th century. He retained the concept of Puccini's starving young artists, then a poet and painter, but made them a film maker and songwriter. Although Larson's characters wear the funky clothing (costumes by Angela Wendt) favored by Gen X, there's a timelessness about their dreams and problems. The fact that young people are idealistic and that they can endure spartan conditions while establishing themselves also is nothing new.
What is new is that Larson added some variations to the equation. The artists live in an unheated loft next to a vacant lot occupied by homeless people who are even worse off than they. Several members of their circle of friends have AIDS. Drugs and muggings are rampant. In addition, Larson's characters are ethnically and sexually diverse with interracial couples, both gay and straight, accepted as a natural part of their society. Differences aren't just tolerated; they're inconsequential. Directed by Michael Greif and choreographed by Marlies Yearby, this touring company bursts with energy and enthusiasm, creating generally likeable, or at least interesting, characters.
The story is related by Mark (Trey Ellett), a film maker whose girlfriend has recently left him for a woman. Ellett's Mark is one of the show's most likable people. Even though he is more often the observer than the participant, he's also one of the more level-headed characters. His roommate and best friend, Roger (Dean Balkwill), a songwriter and guitarist, has AIDS. Though he doesn't seem ill, he has retreated into himself while he tries to write one last song. He begins to emerge from his shell when he meets Mimi (Daphne Rubin-Vega), an exotic dancer and junkie who sometimes exchanges sex for drugs. She also has AIDS. Although Rubin-Vega was the original Mimi, she's one of the weaker performers in this cast. She doesn't convey any sense of vulnerability, and her singing is raspy (or maybe she was hoarse at the second performance).
It's much easier to care about Angel Schunard (Shaun Earl), a sassy drag queen who pairs up with Mark and Roger's friend Tom Collins (Mark Leroy Jackson). Earl is an excellent dancer, even in his high heels. He and Jackson convincingly portray a couple falling in love and becoming devoted to each other even as Angel is dying of AIDS. Because of these performances, Angel's death is far more moving than Mimi's later in the show. Angel and Tom also have one of the show's better numbers, "I'll Cover You," a sweet love song.
Mark's former girlfriend, Maureen (Erin Keaney), is a temperamental performance artist. Keaney is terrific in "Over the Moon," a sendup of performance art. Her new girlfriend, Joanne, is stiffly played by Kamilah Martin. Completing their circle is Ben (Brian M. Love), Roger and Mark's former roommate who has married well and become the landlord who wants to evict them and the homeless people in order to develop a cybertech center.
Paul Clay's set design is gritty with its graffiti-covered back wall and a huge junk sculpture hanging on the right side of the stage. Blake Burba's lighting design is notable for its judicious use of projected shadows, especially during "One Song Glory," sung by the solitary, tormented Roger.
Larson's plot elements don't all fit together, making for a flawed show. Nevertheless, the show has enough creativity and inspiration to make one wish that Larson had lived. Instead, he unexpectedly died of an aortic aneurism a few days before the show's premiere and his 36th birthday. If he were still alive, he might have found ways to improve the show and may even have created new, even better shows. While many observers regard "Rent" as a breakthrough, pioneering Broadway musical, I have my doubts about how well it will stand the test of time.
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