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With 'Rent,' American Stage brings another landmark musical to the park

Rent ran for 12 years on Broadway, and there were numerous tours. All these productions were essentially the same, based on the original direction by Michael Greif, right down to the plaid pants that Roger wears. The 2005 movie was a softer, more sentimental copy, with many of the original cast members from Broadway repeating their performances onscreen.  So the American Stage in the Park production of Jonathan Larson's musical figures to be fascinating, not least to Rentheads who know the show inside-out. Eric Davis, who directed the wildly successful park production of Hair last spring, returns to take on another landmark musical. He promises that his Rent will be quite different from the original.  A week ago, I sat down with Davis and three cast members — Pete Zicky (who plays Roger), Ryan Michael Owens (Mark) and Alex Covington (Mimi) — to trade thoughts on Rent. Here are highlights of our conversation, along with some random observations of my own:

THE STORY: Rent transplants Puccini's La Boheme to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1990s when the neighborhood was home to struggling artists, squatters, drug dealers and real estate speculators.

The musical is about Mark, a filmmaker; his best friend and roommate, Roger, a musician with AIDS who wants to write one great song "before I go"; Mimi, a heroin addict and dancer at the Cat Scratch Club; Angel, a drag queen, and his boyfriend, Collins, a teacher of "computer-age philosophy"; and lesbian performance artist Maureen, who urges the audience to "moo with me.'' Over the course of a year, they deal with tangled relationships, death and gritty urban issues, but love keeps them together in the end.

Tragically, the theme of loss that runs through Rent was borne out in the real-life history of the show. Jonathan Larson, who wrote the music, lyrics and book, died of an aortic aneurysm on the night before the first off-Broadway preview performance.

FAVORITE LA BOHEME REFERENCE: A guitar riff on Musetta's Waltz.

ROCK 'N' ROLL OR MUSICAL THEATER? When Rent opened in 1996, it was hailed as the first successful rock musical on Broadway since Hair or Tommy. Larson's score rocks pretty hard at times, but it reflects the influence of Stephen Sondheim as much as Pearl Jam or Nirvana. "I'd call it musical theater,'' Covington said. "It's definitely more rock than, say, Crazy for You, but it's musical theater because every lyric moves the story forward."

NO PLAID PANTS: "We haven't tried to re-create those very iconic looks of the show,'' Davis said. "For example, Roger wears a light blue and maroon sweater in the original; we haven't done that. Angel will, of course, be dressed in a little Santa suit, but our Santa suit will be different. People do expect a certain feel in some numbers. In La Vie Boheme, there will be shoulder movements in the choreography, as in the original. In Seasons of Love, they want to see people in a straight line across the front of the stage, and that's in the script.''

NOTABLE ALUMNI: Jesse L. Martin, who was Collins in the original Rent cast, went on to play NYPD detective Ed Green on Law & Order from 1999 to 2008. Neil Patrick Harris, who played Mark on the road in 1997, directed a production last summer at the Hollywood Bowl.

WILL I LOSE MY DIGNITY? As much as anything, Rent is a musical about AIDS, set in the early 1990s when the disease was a virtual death sentence. At least four principal characters are HIV-positive, and there are several references to AZT, which was the only medicine back then that had much impact, though the side effects could be brutal. One of the most moving scenes takes place in an AIDS support group that sings, "Will I lose my dignity / Will someone care / Will I wake tomorrow / From this nightmare?''

THE TWO OF US: Larson's score is loaded with spectacular duets, such as Light My Candle, in which Roger and Mimi meet, and the anthem of Angel and Collins, I'll Cover You. "I think Without You is going to move a lot of people,'' Zicky said of an Act 2 duet by Mimi and Roger. "It really hits home to a lot of issues in this piece.''

HOW DO YOU MEASURE? So-called "list songs'' are another trademark of the score (think of Cole Porter's You're the Top as the model). Seasons of Love measures a year in the life by daylights, sunsets, midnights and cups of coffee (and in diapers, report cards and speeding tickets on the bonus track with Stevie Wonder on the original cast album). La Vie Boheme pays homage to bohemia with references that range from yoga and yogurt to "Ginsberg, Dylan, Cunningham and Cage,'' Buddha to Pablo Neruda, bisexuals, trisexuals and Pee-wee Herman.

LESS IS MORE: "Goodbye Love brings a tear to my eye every time,'' Owens said. "And I don't know why. Angel just died, Roger is leaving, and Mimi sings this. She only says like seven words, just repeating 'goodbye love, goodbye love.' But the music behind it brings so much emotion to the words.''

ANOTHER DAY: A revival of Rent, directed by Greif, is to open in July at New World Stages, an off-Broadway theater in New York.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

IF YOU GO: The American Stage in the Park production of Jonathan Larson's musical opens Friday and runs through May 8 at Demens Landing, 100 First Ave. SE, St. Petersburg. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. $11-$27. Preview tonight is pay what you can. Advance tickets at American Stage, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 823-7529; americanstage.org.

With 'Rent,' American Stage brings another landmark musical to the park 04/13/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 2:15pm]

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