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'Rent' at Pantages Theatre

'Rent' relives heady days of youth in pre-9/11 New York.

March 02, 2009|Charlotte Stoudt

That striped scarf is back, along with those peroxide blond boys. "Rent," Jonathan Larson's ground-shaking rock musical, is now very, very live at Pantages Theatre, and this Broadway tour features two original cast members, bespectacled Anthony Rapp as filmmaker Mark and Adam Pascal as HIV-positive songwriter Roger.

It's been only a dozen years since this amplified update of Puccini's "La Boheme" knocked Gotham on its ear, showcasing the diverse talents of Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel and Daphne Rubin-Vega and inspiring later Gen Y hits such as "Avenue Q" and "Spring Awakening." "Rent" now has the inevitability of a classic -- flawed yet too genuine to be anything but irresistible.

Set in Manhattan's Lower East Side over two Christmases, the plot vaguely revolves around the efforts of Mark and Roger's former roommate, Benjamin (Jacques C. Smith), to evict the fledgling artists and residents of a nearby tent city from his Alphabet City property. But "Rent" delivers feeling, not narrative: It's about being young, uncertain of your talent and headlong in love. And despite themes of AIDS and addiction, the piece has the sweet, exuberant spirit of a kid's show -- "Zoom" for the PG-13 set.

On Paul Clay's sprawling inner-city set -- a collage of brick walls, railings and industrial detritus, director Michael Greif and choreographer Marlies Yearby create an urban world teeming with movement. Kudos where it's due: These two really conjure a sense of New York street life. (The sound balance of the onstage rock band is near perfect.) There are full-ensemble numbers -- a kind of "Lower West Side Story" -- and smaller, droll touches, like the sequence of voice mails from various mothers, delivered a cappella at standing microphones.

The best songs are early in Act 1, when the hook-ups come faster than a heroin high. Pascal's Roger falls for HIV-positive addict Mimi, a dancer at an S&M club (Lexi Lawson, a knockout in her solo number, "Out Tonight"). Rapp's Mark finds himself in unlikely sympathy with his ex-girlfriend's new lover, Joanne (Haneefah Wood), and the two pair up for the witty "Maureen Tango" to compare notes on the high-maintenance blond (Nicolette Hart, all out as an impossibly sincere performance artist).

The ever-youthful Rapp focuses the action with appealing self-deprecation, and Pascal broods with fervor. But it's Justin Johnston as the drag queen Angel who steals the night's thunder with the exhilarating "Today 4 U," a percussive dervish performed in a Santa suit, zebra leggings and plastic high heels (the iconic costumes are by Angela Wendt). The emotional center of "Rent" remains Angel's tender relationship with Tom Collins (Michael McElroy), a shy philosopher. For all its talk of la vie boheme, "Rent" shares the innocence of Golden Age musicals. Angel and Ensign Nellie Forbush would get along just fine.

The show has story issues: It's too long, and Act 2 feels hastily assembled. There are missed opportunities, such as "Contact," a dissonant ensemble number that Greif turns into something faux Fosse. Never mind. "Rent" undeniably captures a moment and endures as an unabashed portrait of pre-9/11 New York, when Clintonian optimism was only just starting to wane. A decade later, "Spring Awakening" would develop out of the reactionary Bush years. We'll have to wait to see who sets the uncertain Obama era to equally emphatic music.




Where: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. on Sunday. Ends March 8.

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

Price: $25 to $75

Contact: (213) 365-3500 or

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