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Sure, you remember that Rent is an OK show. You probably forget how long it is, of course, and you maybe don’t recall that Act 1 unfolds lazily over the course of a single day, while Act 2 hurries its unbalanced way through that entire year Jonathan Larson’s bankrupt bohemians keep measuring in love.
But still, you remember that it’s a pretty good show, and you regret in advance that it’s probably going to feel a little dated now—and sure enough it does, with its answering machines and squeegee men, its mooing downtown performance artists and its planned Alphabet City “cyberstudio” and whatnot.
And then the songs take hold anyway, sung as they are in the Keegan Theatre’s production by 15 pretty sensational voices—and by the time they get past the tongue-in-cheek sexiness of “Tango Maureen” and the straight-out come-on of “Light My Candle” to catch you up in a chorale that insists there’s “no day but today,” you remember why Rent made such a splash back in the mid-’90s. Not for its story—lifted in outline from Puccini’s La Bohème and resettled somewhat uncomfortably on the shoulders of various yuppies and druggies and artists and outcasts “living in America/At the end of the millennium”—but for the combination of melodic virtuosity and lyrical invention in Jonathan Larson’s songs, and the mix of big-hearted dreaming and distanced, disenchanted observation that marks every page of his book.
That complicated spirit holds up surprisingly well as we stagger, bruised and bemused, into the next millennium’s second decade, carrying not much more in the way of answers than Larson’s characters had to offer. “Will I lose my dignity/Will someone care/Will I wake tomorrow/From this nightmare,” asks a circle of support-group strangers in one urgent, movingly tidal chorus, and if we still don’t know, we surely understand now—in a land of plenty wasted, in a world more dangerous than we knew then—that these aren’t questions just for people struggling to come to terms with an unwelcome passenger in their blood.
And yet Rent’s very specific concerns—not least among them how queers and punks and people living with HIV and AIDS can live fully, vibrantly among a population that outright fears them—seem just as vital now as they must have at the show’s first staged reading in the spring of 1993. Cultural warfare, capitalist myopia, and conformist pressures are hardly things we’ve left behind. Likewise the fact of terrifying infection rates among urban populations: Too many of us have been surprised by a diagnosis recently, and too many of us have agonized, as Larson’s lovers and loners do, over what will come and who will be there when it does. It hurts to be confronted by those truths, though it’s cathartic at least to have such beautiful music underscoring the reminder.
Of course Rent isn’t ultimately a depressing show, or it never would have run for 12 long years on Broadway. It’s funny, and it’s sarcastic, and it insists on the triumph of hope and determination, and on the comforts and the abundant wealth of chosen families. Those, too, are things worth hearing now.
The Keegan Theatre cast sells those notions with energy and spirit, and one or two turns stand out as particularly dazzling. Katie McManus sings the bejesus out of everything that comes her way, showing not a whit of vocal fatigue in a part that might strain a more seasoned professional. Parker Drown does appealingly tart, precise work in the flamboyant part of the saintly, smart-aleck drag queen Angel—a role that can lend itself to mugging and that can all too easily curdle into cutesy.
Elsewhere, Michael Robinson makes a buttery-voiced, unshowy Tom Collins (Angel’s sweetheart, remember, who longs to get away from the grime and open up a restaurant in Santa Fe). John Loughney, as filmmaker-narrator Mark, has a true and pleasant tenor, and the energy he puts into his vocals mostly makes up for a touch of blandness in what’s meant to be a conflicted, alienated character. And if Juan Carlos Sanchez sings a little raggedly and looks a little grunge-era grubby to be the “pretty boy front-man” Larson meant his romantic hero Roger to be, his Mimi (Emily Levey) is certainly a sexpot of the first order—and when they’re singing their sultrier duets (as opposed to powering their way through the louder, more demanding numbers) they’re more than convincing enough.
Complaints about a slack moment, a stale choice, or an unclear thread here and there in the musical staging (Kurt Boehm is the choreographer, with co-directors Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea giving the production its overall shape) would be fair but not entirely just: Critics have been pointing out such moments since Rent’s first off-Broadway production at the New York Theatre Workshop. It’s true that my seatmate, for instance, couldn’t track why McManus’ Joanne had a blowup with Weslie Woodley’s hotcha Maureen during that famous table-dancing production number (“La Vie Boheme”) that ends Act 1, but that may simply come with the material.
And the heart of that material, when you get right down to it, is that sumptuous collection of songs—from a writer whose promise was famously cut short with his life—and the spirit of a musical that both scorns the stinginess of an uncharitable world and celebrates the defiant ones who insist they can live differently. More power to them, the Keegan Theatre’s production makes you want to say—and to us.