A musical being greeted by whoops of recognition and encouragement before even a note is sung? Is this the universe as we know it? The juggernaut that is "Rent" came to Los Angeles on Sunday night. If you haven't yet seen this 1996 rock-tinged, loose adaptation of "La Boheme" in New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Washington, or La Jolla, now's your chance to vote yea or nay. Directed and designed by the original team, the production at the Ahmanson Theatre offers the force of the original. An all-new cast of course comes with its own strengths and weaknesses.
Most people who see the show know of the death of Jonathan Larson, the 35-year-old creator of the musical, on the eve of the show's off-Broadway preview. His death is as ever a presence in this bittersweet work, which deals with a group of young artist friends--the "Alphabet City avant-garde," as they call themselves. Dwelling precariously on Avenues A, B and C in New York's East Village, they forge their identities with the kind of self-importance only the young can bring to the party. In the second act, a group of young people living with AIDS, who know more than they should about loss, form a chorus line to sing the plaintive "Seasons of Love." When a beloved character dies, the chorus line re-forms into an especially wrenching image, with the missing character's place empty in the line.
Larson probably projected his own biography onto both of the main male characters. One is the group's Boswell--a self-designated observer and filmmaker named Mark, played by a lithe, graceful and merrily ironic Neil Patrick Harris, in a tremendously likable performance. His roommate in a heat-free garret is the songwriter Roger, played by Christian Mena, who has a tough time of it. True, Roger is a brooder, and the role was originally sung (by Adam Pascal) with a purplish, self-pitying vocal quality, which Mena repeats. Mena lets you see all the work he puts into the role, and it feels like work to watch him. Julia Santana brings a similar laboriousness to the part of Roger's amour, Mimi, an exotic dancer whose sexiness seems strictly professional here.
Their love song "Light My Candle" is the scene modeled most faithfully after "La Boheme" (which the L.A. Opera very helpfully happened to schedule earlier this month), perhaps the loveliest wooing scene in all of opera. Here, Larson takes a lighter tone of flirtation and male befuddlement, which loosens these actors up a bit, for a short time.
With Roger reverting to petulance, two other characters emerge as the show's reigning couple. One is Collins (Mark Leroy Jackson), a bohemian brainiac from MIT whose easy-funky ways are perfectly captured in the charming song "Santa Fe," the place where he dreams of opening a restaurant. Collins falls in love with Angel. As embodied by Wilson Cruz (from TV's "My So-Called Life"), Angel is truly angelic, a young transvestite who dresses up for Christmas like Annette Funicello playing Mrs. Claus, with no discernible irony. Angel is just naturally that sunny. Their love song, "I'll Cover You," with its pop hopefulness, is a high point of the first act, as well as in the second, when it is reprised to shattering effect.
The play's third couple is the competent Harvard-educated lawyer Joanne (a winning Kenna Ramsey) and the spoiled-brat performance artist Maureen (the funny Leigh Hetherington). It falls to Maureen to amusingly over-perform "Over the Moon," Larson's parody of East Village performance art, the kind of work actually being produced in the place where "Rent" got started.
"Rent" means to reach out to young people, and it has obviously succeeded in that (witness the overnight lines in the cities where it has played). But "Rent" has been claimed by the dominant culture, no matter how much the characters sing about being out of the mainstream. And it is only within the context of mainstream culture, i.e., the Ahmanson, that it becomes invigorating to see, for instance, the Act 1 closer, "La Vie Boheme," in which those crazy kids from "Rent" sing their anthem to being them.
In this number (choreographer Marlies Yearby's finest moment) they climb up on a long table and include the audience in their toasting--"to faggots, lezzies, dykes, cross-dressers, too. To me . . . to you and you and you, you and you." Here is "Rent" in its purest form. At its best, it marries a youthful insistence on inclusion, on being outraged that "in America, you are what you own," with a savvy that bespeaks Broadway big bucks. It would not have the power it does if it did not utilize both worlds, however hypocritical that may seem. Director Michael Greif understood "Rent's" dichotomy from the beginning: This is a musical in which the homeless ladies wear false eyelashes. But when they start singing, they rip your heart out.