ST. PETERSBURG — It's chilling to witness American Stage's performance of Rent in Demens Landing. Tearful voices boom through the heart of a city bookended by luxury waterfront condominiums and parks full of transients.
Tending the homeless population is an ongoing moral tightrope walk for St. Petersburg, which in 2007 saw its own tent city slashed. With Rent, American Stage has touched an open wound.
Jonathan Larson's musical is a story about poverty, about haves and have-nots, about compassion and success. Set in New York's Alphabet City, it follows struggling bohemian artists living without heat. They burn music posters and screenplays in an illegal stove to stay warm. They face eviction by wealthy developers. The neighboring homeless tent city is also in peril, doomed by an encroaching cyber studio and condos.
A chorus of homeless people sing: "Can't you spare a dime or two? Here but for the grace of God go you. You'll be merry. I'll be merry. Though merry ain't in my vocabulary."
Rent creator Larson sought to remake Puccini's La Boheme, but set in the 1990s. He swapped Puccini's tuberculosis with AIDS. He confronted homophobia, mortality, suicide, selling out, hating your parents and celebrating each day as if you will die tomorrow. Larson, in fact, died the day before his show opened off-Broadway.
It's raw. You should know that going in. There are f-words and drug references and an artfully done sex scene. The music is epic, loud and linked with reprises like a jagged puzzle. The set is minimal and interpretive, just like Rent's Broadway staging. A tower of folding chairs strung with colored lights acts as a Christmas tree. The stage is accurate down to a single paper lantern and a phone booth downstage.
When Rent tears you down, it expertly builds you back up with wit. Drag queen Angel, played by the sprightly Ricky Cona, struts around in a Mrs. Claus suit singing a dance song about offing a neighbor's yappy dog for $1,000. Alison Burns shines as bisexual performance artist Maureen, who protests the eviction of the homeless with a beatnik nursery rhyme: "The dish and the spoon, for instance, they were down on their luck. They come knocking on my doghouse door and I said, 'Not in my backyard, utensils! Go back to China!' "
Narrator Mark Cohen, played by Ryan Michael Owens, documents his friends on film amid their strife. Owens is fully committed and has superb comic timing. He's a good counter to Pete Zicky's Roger, a musician who wants to write a meaningful song before he dies of AIDS: "Find glory, beyond the cheap colored lights, one song before the sun sets. Glory, on another empty life."
Legions of drama kids and theater devotees know every single word to Rent. At the New York theater where the show ran for 12 years, walls are scrawled with fan greetings, lyrics and confessions that the show's message changed lives. Serious Rent fans will compare every cast with the original.
Zicky's voice is extremely similar to original cast member Adam Pascal, who also played Roger in the 2005 film adaptation. Clinton Harris soulfully navigates Tom Collins, the show's gay philosophy instructor and arguably most complex character. Lulu Picart, who plays lesbian lawyer Joanne, surprises with a big voice on Seasons of Love, the iconic anthem that opens the second act.
Directed by Eric Davis, American Stage's performance suffered from a few sound problems and slow lighting cues, and it seemed to jar the cast a little. But the energy stayed high until the end, when they all joined in harmony to chant Larson's life-affirming mantra, "No day but today."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.