TAMPA — Two decades after Rent shook up Broadway with a starkly joyous musical that demanded to be recognized, a nostalgic tour is taking audiences back.
It's a strange concept, the tail end of Generation X already looking back. But so much has changed since Jan. 25, 1996, the debut of Jonathan Larson's play about free-spirited and financially strapped young people living in a New York warehouse, that the timing seems right. Larson never got to see his creation before a Broadway audience; he died earlier that day of an aortic aneurysm.
A thirties-to-fifties crowd filled the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday for the 20th anniversary tour of Rent. The Tony- and Pulitzer-winning show based on Puccini's La Boheme has gone down as a game changer, confronting audiences with characters people who can afford the ticket prices might have avoided, and the HIV epidemic that was still killing people left and right.
How much had it aged? Had director Evan Ensign tweaked the show significantly?
Behind those questions lurks the big one: Is Rent still relevant?
The answer was a clear yes for many in the audience, who cheered even at the mere entrance of certain characters (the flamboyant Angel and scatterbrained Maureen were big favorites) and sang to lyrics they knew by heart.
Apart from subtle adjustments in costuming and hairstyles and lighting schemes unavailable in 1996, it's pretty much the same as the film of the stage show in 2008, at the end of its run. The most significant changes come by way Marlies Yearby, the Tony-winning choreographer who returned to launch the tour last year. In a recent phone interview, Yearby told the Times she adapted the movement to the personalities and strengths of actors and did so here.
The broader themes don't need adjustment because they are timeless. Like Scenes From the Life of Bohemia, Henri Murger's 1851 serialized vignettes that inspired the opera, this is about the young. They have boundless energy, they are sometimes more prone to addiction, they create and destroy and steal each other's girlfriends.
Oddly, these young people are also struggling with end-of-life issues, the kind of losses normally reserved for combat soldiers or the elderly. Tenants Mark and Roger are looking at eviction, thanks to their landlord and former pal Benny, who wants to build an upscale art studio there. Sammy Ferber plays Mark, an endearingly befuddled aspiring filmmaker whose parents want him to take a corporate job he's been offered. Ferber, 21, fell in love with Rent in preschool, said his mother, Brenda Aaronson Ferber.
Kaleb Wells makes for a capable if somewhat detached Roger, a rock singer who wants to compose one memorable song before he too dies. He's also part of some nice duets with Mark and also Mimi (Skyler Volpe), a heroin addict and his love interest.
The overdue rent sets up moral dilemmas, from the homeless group that will be displaced by Benny's studio to an extra-legal scheme devised by a professor to get financially well. Collins, the professor played by Aaron Harrington, adds vocal heft in several numbers, such as his newly choreographed signature song, Santa Fe, about his dream of opening a restaurant.
The downside is that too often in this production, individual cast members seem rushed and going through the motions. They lose intensity, they struggle to keep up with a fast, metronomic pace and hit some flat notes. But many times too, individuals step up, take their time and own their space. Thus the show becomes a collection of moments rather than a contiguous whole.
Major kudos go to Lyndie Moe, who shows wonderful comic chops as Maureen Johnson, and whose big voice combines with that of Jasmine Easler, who plays Maureen's partner Joanne in the show's most powerful duet, Take Me or Leave Me. Aaron Alcaraz also delivers as the spunky Angel, Collins' partner who dies on stage and is memorialized. The boldest choreographic change takes place in that scene. Previously Angel simply arose from a gurney-like table, a silky white fabric trailing behind like a bridal train.
That still happens, but first the dying Angel participates in a dance at the center of a circle, surrounded by her friends. The effect is much more exuberant, like the occasion the show commemorates.
CORRECTION: Jonathan Larson died of an aortic aneurysm. An earlier online version of this story gave an incorrect cause of death. Also, Aaron Alcaraz played Angel. An earlier version of the story listed an incorrect last name.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.