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THEATER REVIEW;Rock Opera A la ‘Boheme’ And ‘Hair’

The subject of the work is death at an early age. And in one of the dark dramatic coincidences theater occasionally springs on us, its 35-year-old author died only weeks before its opening. Yet no one who attends Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” the exhilarating, landmark rock opera at the New York Theater Workshop, is likely to mistake it for a wake.

Indeed, this vigorous tale of a marginal band of artists in Manhattan’s East Village, a contemporary answer to “La Boheme,” rushes forward on an electric current of emotion that is anything but morbid. Sparked by a young, intensely vibrant cast directed by Michael Greif and sustained by a glittering, inventive score, the work finds a transfixing brightness in characters living in the shadow of AIDS. Puccini’s ravishingly melancholy work seemed, like many operas of its time, to romance death; Mr. Larson’s spirited score and lyrics defy it.

Rent” inevitably invites reflections on the incalculable loss of its composer, who died of an aortic aneurysm on Jan. 25, but it also shimmers with hope for the future of the American musical. Though this production still has its bumps, most visibly in its second act, Mr. Larson has proved that rock-era song styles can be integrated into a character-driven story for the stage with wildly affecting success. (Only the Broadway version of the Who’s “Tommy” has supported that premise in recent years, and its characters were more icons than real people.)

Actually, while Mr. Larson plays wittily with references to Puccini’s masterpiece, the excitement around “Rent” more directly recalls the impact made by a dark-horse musical Off Broadway in 1967: “Hair.” Like that meandering, genial portrait of draft-dodging hippies, this production gives a pulsing, unexpectedly catchy voice to one generation’s confusion, angep and anarchic, pleasure-seeking vitality.

The setting has shifted east, from Washington Square to St. Mark’s Place; the drug of choice is now heroin, not LSD; and the specter that gives its characters’ lives a feverish, mordant edge isn’t the Vietnam War but H.I.V.

And Mr. Larson has provided a story line and ambitious breadth of technique miles away from “Hair,” with its funky, loosely plotted patchwork of countercultural ditties and ballads. But both works, in a way, are generational anthems, not so much of protest, finally, but of youthful exuberance, even (or especially) when the youth in question is imperiled.

The denizens of Mr. Larson’s bohemian landscape are directly descended from their Puccini prototypes but given a hip, topical spin. The poet Rodolfo becomes Roger (Adam Pascal), a songwriter who has shut down emotionally after the suicide of his girlfriend. The painter Marcello is now Mark (Anthony Rapp), a video artist who shares an abandoned industrial loft with Roger on Avenue B.

Mark has recently been thrown over by his lover, Maureen (Idina Menzel), th’ show’s answer to Musetta and a performance artist who has left him for another woman, the lawyer Joanne (Fredi Walker). And Puccini’s frail, tubercular Mimi sheds her passivity to be reincarnated as Mimi Marquez (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a tough stray kitten of a woman who dances in an S-and-M club.

The plot is a peppery hash of lover’s quarrels and reconciliations, with a slightly labored subplot in which the men’s landlord, Benjamin (Taye Diggs), a former confrere gone Yuppie, padlocks their building while trying to evict a colony of homeless people next door.

Obviously, poverty is less picturesque in Mr. Larson’s world than in Puccini’s. (The moon, in the most inspired touch in Paul Clay’s gritty set, is only an oversize Japanese lantern.) This show’s equivalent of the Latin Quarter cafe scene, with its jolly parade of children and vendors, is an angry Christmas Eve vignette set among bag people on St. Mark’s Place. And this Mimi has cold hands because she needs a fix.

Moreover, Mimi, who is H.I.V.-positive, isn’t the only candidate for an early death. Roger and his friends, Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), a self-styled computer age philosopher, and Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a transvestite sculptor, also carry the virus. Accordingly, the leitmotif of the show is the image of time evaporating; its credo, quite unabashedly, “Seize the day.”

Mr. Larson gives refreshingly melodic life to these sentiments with a score of breathta’ing eclecticism, lovingly and precisely interpreted by the production’s excellent five-member band, led by Tim Weil.

The styles include not only electric rock but salsa, Motown, be-bop and reggae, with a firm nod to Stephen Sondheim and even a passing one to Burt Bacharach. There is also a disarmingly dexterous use of operatic, multi-voiced counterpoint and of duets that range from the exquisite (the candle-lit meeting of Roger and Mimi) to the two-fistedly comic (Musetta’s waltz becomes “Tango: Maureen”).

An alternately agile and baldly declarative lyricist with a tireless knack for all manner of rhymes, Mr. Larson, like his characters, is clearly a child of postmodernism. (This, after all, is a show that rhymes “curry vindaloo” with “Maya Angelou.”) But he ultimately avoids the style of brittle, defensive irony, with everything framed in quotation marks, that has become the hallmark of downtown theater in recent years.

In fact, on one level, “Rent” is about breaking through the self-protective detachment, here embodied by both Roger and Mark, of a generation weaned on the archness of David Letterman and the blankness of Andy War’ol. Like such other recent works as Mr. Sondheim’s “Passion” and Nicky Silver’s “Raised in Captivity,” this show directly addresses the idea of being cut off from feelings by fear.

This is definitely not a problem for Mr. Larson. Indeed, one forgives the show’s intermittent lapses into awkwardness or cliche because of its overwhelming emotional sincerity. And when the whole ensemble stands at the edge of the stage, singing fervently about the ways of measuring borrowed time, the heart both breaks and soars.

It should also be pointed out that Mr. Greif lets his cast come to the edge of the stage to serenade the audience entirely too often. He is also guilty of staging that obscures crucial plot elements. And he and his choreographer, Marlies Yearby, don’t make the most of the varied possibilities of the score. Only the heady, intricately rhymed “Vie Boheme” banquet number, which concludes the first act, and the erotically staged death of Angel really match the inventive sweep of the music.

The cast, however, is terrific, right down to the last ensemble member, and blessed with voices of remarkable flexibility and strength. The unflaggingly focused Mr. Rapp gives the show its energetic motor; the golden-voiced Mr. Pascal its meditative soul and Ms. Rubin-Vega its affirmative sensuality. Mr. Martin, Ms. Walker, Mr. Heredia and Ms. Menzel are all performers of both wit and emotional conviction.

It is the latter trait that lifts “Rent” well above the synthetic, cleverly packaged herd of Broadway musical revivals and revues. Along with George C. Wolfe and Savion Glover’s “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk,” this show restores spontaneity and depth of feeling to a discipline that sorely needs them. People who complain about the demise of the American musical have simply been looking in the wrong places. Well done, Mr. Larson.


By Jonathan Larson; directed by Michael Greif; musical director, Tim Weil; choreography by Marlies Yearby; sets by Paul Clay; costumes by Angela Wendt; lighting by Blake Burba; sound by Darron L. West; dramaturge, Lynn M. Thomson; musical arranger, Steve Skinner; assistant director, Martha Banta; original concept and additional lyrics, Billy Aronson; film, Tony Gerber; production manager, Susan R. White; production stage manager, Crystal Huntington; assistant stage manager, Catherine J. Haley. New Director/ New Directions Series. Presented by New York Theater Workshop, James C. Nicola, artistic director; Nancy Kassak Diekmann, managing director. At 79 East Fourth Street, East Village.

WITH: Anthony Rapp (Mark Cohen), Adam Pascal (Roger Davis), Jesse L. Martin (Tom Collins), Taye Diggs (Benjamin Coffin 3d), Fredi Walker (Joanne Jefferson), Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel Schunard), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Mimi Marquez), Idina Menzel (Maureen Johnson) and Kristen Lee Kelly, Byron Utley, Gwen Stewart, Timothy Britten Parker, Gilles Chiasson, Rodney Hicks and Aiko Nakasone.

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