Rent is due; and doing well

Those relentlessly tapping feet in the “Lord of the Dance” ensemble, the previous tenants of the Warner Theatre, have nothing on the hard-working twenty-somethings in an exclusive engagement of the Broadway musical “Rent.” The touring production – if not as combustible as the New York show – works like a slow burn, blistering and eventually creating an equal effect.

A joint effort between conceptualist Billy Aronson and composer/lyricist Jonathan Larson, “Rent” is based on the Puccini opera “La Boheme,” about a community of artists and the romances that influence their work. His show is a tribute to the starving artists of New York’s Lower East Side and their Bohemian subculture. The characters are plagued by the harshness of the streets, poverty and the AIDS virus. Though it’s fundamentally Puccini’s tale modernized, at its core “Rent” is Larson’s tuneful labor of love – love for your fellow man and love for the human spirit.

The show begins at the end of the last millennium. Mark and Roger, creatively and financially strapped, are living day to day in a drafty loft and struggling to make ends meet. Their former roommate Benny, now rich and married, is planning to evict them and turn their building and the lot next door into a cyber-arts studio. To do this, he must clear the homeless from the space, angering Maureen, Mark’s former lover, who decides to retaliate with a performance protest. Meanwhile, Roger, an HIV-positive musician, meets Mimi, a HIV-positive dancer. Mark and Roger’s friend Tom falls in love with Angel, a drag queen who resuscitates him on the eve of a mugging. Maureen forms a patchy relationship with a woman called Joanne. Their stories all weave together and overlap, until the group forms a pseudo-familial unit founded in love.

Most interesting is the altered but no less meaningful impact of “Rent” half a decade after its inception. The lyric “Why choose fear?/ … I’m a New Yorker, fear’s my life,” which used to denote a character’s (and a city’s) difficulty coping with AIDS (among other things, of course), now resonates with an altered solemnity all too real after the events of September 11.

The show’s primary weakness has always been the music. Jonathan Larson’s trouble with melody is especially noticeable during the women’s numbers. When Mimi sings about “going out tonight,” the effect is closer to caterwauling than crooning. And even the show’s most stirring compositions are more loud than resonant. Larson’s gift for words and complex rhythms, however, is what gives his pieces lift.

As Maureen, Alison Burns is a peculiar choice. Her doll-like image seems incongruous with her character’s brazen personality. Her rousing audience participation number requires the actress to summon an unabashed gracelessness. But Burns, seemingly miscast, grows into her part. Guy Olivieri and Kevin Spencer, as Mark and Roger, are a nice match for each other both vocally and dramatically. Krystal L. Washington is a ferociously smoldering Mimi, and Justin Rodriguez a soulful Angel.

The rest of the cast is uniformly sound, working perhaps best as a whole rather than in individual performances, which is appropriate for a show that embraces togetherness.

“Rent” remains imperfect yet unrelenting, dated yet eternal. Jonathan Larson died at 35 of an aortic aneurysm on the eve of his show’s opening night. He never got to witness the impact his work on audiences. But his wisdom lives on, and is shared with everyone willing to listen. All we have is each other, and time is of the essence. In his words: no day but today.

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