Here's a thing that happened: In 1998, my best friend and I camped out on the steps of the Civic Auditorium—now the Keller—for $20 rush tickets to the touring production of Rent, the hit Broadway musical about smack-addicted gay hipsters with AIDS. I saw it three times in one week, twice from the front row. I loved that musical in the way that shy teenagers always love things; that is to say, I over-identified. Not with any of the AIDSy characters, but with Mark Cohen, the filmmaker whose efforts to document the lives of his friends provide the show its loose framework. He's the consummate outsider, an awkward dude more comfortable observing life than participating—in short, he's a perfect foil for adolescent self-consciousness. I even had a Mark Cohen scarf.
All of this is to explain the dramatically low expectations I had for the current touring production of Rent, which opened at the Keller last night—featuring original cast members Adam Pascal (Roger) and Anthony Rapp (Mark). Since discovering irony in 1999, I've been mortified by my Rent phase, and I was half anticipating bolting at intermission (I had "Rent, rent, rent, rent, rent! We're not gonna pay rent!" stuck in my head all day yesterday). Turns out I didn't give the show enough credit—its social relevance has almost entirely waned (sorry kids), but it still boasts a great score, lively writing, and a terrifically strong ensemble.
It's helpful to think of Rent as a period piece. Set on the Lower East Side in the mid-'90s, the main characters are squatter/artists earnestly pursuing their art, resisting "selling out," and, presumably, having lots of unprotected sex and using dirty needles, because fully half of them have HIV. These plot points don't entirely resonate in grown-up land: Obviously, seeing a touring Broadway production sponsored by Fred Meyer renders the selling out conversation pretty much moot, and AIDS just isn't the cause célèbre among liberals that it once was. But for the purposes of an enjoyable evening at the theater: AIDS is the scourge of bobo art collectives everywhere, and the purity of one's artistic vision must be preserved at all cost. Okay? Okay.
Plot summary here. I'm not up for it. Basically everyone has AIDS except for Mark, his ex-girlfriend Maureen, and her new girlfriend Joanne. They don't want to pay rent; they care about homeless people; they are bohemians.
Anthony Rapp kills it in his reprisal of Mark Cohen: He's confident, funny, and though he's played this role literally hundreds of times, he seems to be enjoying it. When he teams up with another cast standout, newcomer Haneefah Wood, for the commiserative duet "The Tango Maureen," the two have an arch, flamboyant charisma that's sexy and surprisingly fresh. Maureen herself is played by Nicolette Hart, who's daffy and sexy and pretty much note-perfect: Her unintentionally hilarious "performance art" piece is the show's comedic highlight.
As the HIV-positive drug addict Mimi, Lexi Lawson's sparkly blue leggings and really fantastic ass distract from the reality that while the girl can sing and dance, she ain't no actress—pay attention during "Out Tonight," and you'll realize you'd have no idea what her character was feeling without the high kicks and dance moves to fill in the blanks. Another disappointment: "La Vie Boheme," one of the biggest songs in the show, is an over-choreographed clunker. In general, though, the ensemble is terrific—some of the best moments are ensemble filler like "Christmas Bells" and "Life Support."
IN CONCLUSION: If you like big gay musicals, go see it. If you don't, then don't.