Stirring 'Rent' was overdue Review: Energy, funky set, urban venue add up to emotionally powerful production of Broadway hit.

October 03, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

At the end of the first act of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "Rent," there's a song called "La Vie Boheme" that celebrates "days of inspiration,/Playing hooky, making something/Out of nothing, the need/To express -- /To communicate."

To a large extent, that exuberant sense of creation is what "Rent" is about. And this is a musical that exudes exuberance. The touring production at the Mechanic Theatre is the equal of its Broadway counterpart, with soaring performances that run the gamut from touching to rafter-raising.

The show, created by the late Jonathan Larson, loosely transposes Puccini's "La Boheme" to New York's East Village, with AIDS replacing tuberculosis and rock musicians and

filmmakers replacing the opera's poets and painters.

The brightest star in the shining cast is Laura Dias as Mimi (a seamstress in the opera, a drug-addicted, HIV-positive exotic dancer in "Rent"). Dias has a magnetic presence and knows how to modulate her performance for maximum effect. In her solo, "Out Tonight," she wraps herself around the metal pipes on the set's upper level with cat-like sensuousness, then howls with the power of a lioness.

Dias' emotional range typifies the overall performance range of a cast that truly seems to connect with its roles. On the one hand, there is undeniable intensity to the louder, more insistent numbers, such as "Take Me or Leave Me," the high-volume musical argument between Kamilah Martin and Erin Keaney as lesbian lovers. But there is also a softer, sweeter side to the production, exemplified by Shaun Earl's Angel, an AIDS-infected drag queen who teaches his discouraged, cynical friends to savor life.

Chief among the cynics is Mimi's love interest, a rock musician named Roger. Christian Anderson plays the part convincingly but has a raspy vocal style that is more irritating than effective (I kept wanting him to clear his throat). Trey Ellett is empathetic as his roommate, a filmmaker who comes close to sacrificing his artistic ideals. Other standout performances are delivered by Baltimore native D'Monroe as a yuppie landlord and smooth-voiced Dwayne Clark as Angel's lover.

The high-caliber production looks great in Baltimore, and not only because designer Paul Clay's junk-heap, jungle-gym of a set looks as if it belongs in the Visionary Art Museum. With its concrete walls, the Mechanic Theatre lends itself especially well to the urban "street" look of the show. Nor does it hurt that this is one of the smaller theaters on the production's tour.

Larson, "Rent's" creator, died of an aortic aneurysm at age 35, hours after the show's off-Broadway dress rehearsal. His death made the musical's message of carpe diem all the more urgent. "I live this moment/As my last,/ There's only us/There's only this," Mimi sings to Roger.

And that's the way this cast performs -- all out. Under Michael Greif's direction, the performers' combination of unbridled energy and talent largely overrides quibbles about revisions -- such as streamlining the plot and eliminating repetitions -- that Larson might have made.

Describing "Rent" as " 'Hair' for the '90s," Larson clearly hoped the show would help reinvent the Broadway musical. In actuality, "Rent" is a traditional musical with a 1990s sensibility. It may not drastically alter musical theater, but it definitely attracts a younger audience, and it has the power to make older theatergoers feel young again.

'Rent'

Where: Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. Sundays (no evening performance Oct. 11); matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Oct. 4, 7, 18, 25, and Nov. 1; 3 p.m. Oct. 11. Through Nov. 1

Tickets: $30-$65 ($20 tickets available, two per customer, cash only, at the box office two hours before performances)

` Call: 410-752-1200

Pub Date: 10/03/98

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