By JENNIFER FARRAR
NEW YORK – You wouldn’t think a musical about struggling artists facing an imminent threat of death could possibly be uplifting.
But the new off-Broadway revival of the popular rock musical “Rent,” loosely based on the Puccini opera “La Boheme,” radiates energetic optimism, musicality and humor, even though several of the youthful characters are HIV-positive.
“Rent” originated off-Broadway in 1996, then moved to Broadway for what became a 12-year run, garnering four Tony Awards, including one for best musical, and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for drama.
The current revival at New World Stages, which opened Thursday night, is full of vitality, imaginatively directed by Michael Greif, who also helmed both of the previous New York productions and most of the regional tours.
Book, music and lyrics for “Rent” were all written by the late Jonathan Larson, who died suddenly at age 35 of an aortic aneurysm in January 1996, just before the show opened. Crafting clever parallels for his modern bohemians, he transported Puccini’s struggling artists of 1896 to New York’s gritty East Village, in the bad old days of 1991-92 when AIDS was considered a terminal illness.
Larson’s emotional, intensely defiant pop rock score includes ballads, punk rock, R&B and rap. The work is filled with witty lyrics that celebrate the loves, courage and survival of characters based on Larson’s real-life friends, a mosaic of straight, gay, black, white and Hispanic people- some of them homeless- who form their own family and take care of one another.
Like the original, this effective revival features a talented cast of young, sexy, attractive, relatively unknown actors. The narrator, amateur video artist Mark, (played with engaging charm by Adam Chanler-Berat) is shooting a year-long documentary about the lives of his friends as they struggle in menial jobs, try to maintain artistic integrity and fight greedy developers.
Mark shares an unheated loft on the lower East side with his depressed, HIV-positive friend Roger (an appealing performance by Matt Shingledecker), a derailed rock musician striving to write “one great song” before he dies. The unlikely villain is their former friend Benny (Ephraim Sykes), now their slumlord, who’s demanding a year’s back rent while kicking homeless people off his empty lot.
Roger meets and falls for Mimi, an HIV-positive junkie and exotic dancer, expressively portrayed by Arianda Fernandez. Some of Fernandez’ lyrics were hard to distinguish at a preview performance, but her sultry rendition of “Out Tonight,” is still a standout. She and Shingledecker convey desparate passion separately and together, especially with their romantic duets, “Without You,” “I Should Tell You” and the stirring finale, “Your Eyes.”
Their circle of friends includes another AIDS-stricken couple: Collins, (a wry, confident Nicholas Christopher), a philosophical anarchist/professor; and his new lover, Angel, a gentle drag queen and street performer (a delightful MJ Rodriguez.) The pair are affecting together, especially on their romantic duet “I’ll Cover You.”
Mark’s ex-girlfriend, earnestly bad performance artist Maureen (a spunky, comedic portrayal by Annaleigh Ashford) has left him for lawyer Joanne (a grounded performance by Corbin Reid). One of the funnier numbers is “Tango:Maureen,” a skillful dance and duet between Reid and Chanler-Berat, in which they reluctantly realize the bond they share.
Six other actors round out the community with a variety of small but vital roles as worried parents or snarky homeless people. The hard-charging five-piece band, led by Will Van Dyke and located atop the rear of the set, keeps the beat pulsating without drowning out the lyrics. Spirited choreography by Larry Keigwin matches Larson’s energetic score, with music supervision and additional arrangements by Tim Weil.
Other strong numbers include “La Vie Boheme,” a sarcastic homage to individuality, and “Seasons of Love” the haunting anthem about time, which many of these people may not have.
Greif has fully utilized the small theater, creating a dynamic flow of quick scene changes on Mark Wendland’s intimate set. Vertical and multi-tiered, it’s a clever maze of fire escapes, ladders and window gates, rising against a backdrop of urban projections by Peter Nigrini. With lighting by Kevin Adams and Brian Ronan’s sound design, the production elements nicely establish quicksilver mood and location changes.
The grungy look and feel of the East Village 20 years ago is aided by the streetwise fashion sense of Angela Wendt’s costumes. Whether or not you’ve seen “Rent” before, the message of the rock opera remains timeless. The final words, “No day but today,” sung by the ensemble, reflect Larson’s resonant message that what truly matters is finding love and living fully with whatever time you’ve got.