Paid in Full

Acutely aware that society routinely champions mendacity in matters of art, beauty and truth, the Lower East Side slackers in the musical Rent harbor no illusions about their place in the world. They'll never be invited to place their names in the social register, for instance, or plaster their autographed mugs on the walls of a pretentious glass-brass-and-neon eatery. Starving New York City artists all--save for a ubiquitous landlord type who threatens to evict his former friends from the condemned loft they call home--most are indigent, a few have AIDS, and none seem willing to beg, borrow, steal, network or even trust-fund their way to materialistic bliss.

Instead, the characters in the late Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning show, now on stage at the Buell Theatre downtown, are driven by a bottomless desire to fulfill their creative passions and insubstantial dreams. Based on Giacomo Puccini's popular 1896 opera, La Boheme, all of the action takes place in lower Manhattan's "Alphabet City" neighborhood. A collection of vacant lots, crumbling tenements, immigrant-owned businesses, expensive condominiums and even a park or two--a grassland shantytown near Larson's apartment building became the flashpoint for the infamous Tompkins Square riots a few years back--the blighted urban landscape serves as an appropriate modern-day version of Puccini's chosen locale of turn-of-the-century Paris. (Underscoring the connection between the two works, an electric-guitar-toting character in the rock opera periodically strums a few notes from Musetta's famous waltz.)

As the play begins, we learn that Roger (Christian Anderson), an HIV-positive musician, and Mark (Trey Ellett), a would-be filmmaker, haven't paid their rent. What's worse, they've been threatened with eviction by their former roommate, Benny (D'Monroe), who wants to raze their building and erect a cyber-arts studio in its place at the up-and-coming location of 11th Street and Avenue B. Upon learning of her friends' plight, Mark's former girlfriend, Maureen (Erin Keaney), and her lesbian lover, Joanne (Kamilah Martin), decide to stage a performance-art-style Christmas Eve protest in the building's adjacent lot, a homeless haunt that Benny also owns. In due time, the savvy cross-cultural activists are joined in their efforts by Mark and Roger's gay friend, Tom (Mark Leroy Jackson); Tom's newfound lover, a bubbly drag queen named Angel (Shaun Earl); and Benny's former flame, Mimi (Karen Olivo), who becomes romantically involved with Roger.

Director Michael Greif employs an energetic, straightforward and lyrical staging that's the perfect complement to Larson's hard-driving, tender and eminently listenable score. Combined with several compelling one-on-one scenes (Larson also wrote the show's book) and a healthy dose of artist-effacing humor, Greif's eclectic approach makes for an engrossing, profoundly moving production that's blessedly free of vitriolic diatribe and apologetic bonhomie. In particular, Greif superbly evokes the characters' ennobling sense of shared intimacy: Tempered by the ravages of disease and tempted by the yearning for independence, three couples wordlessly affirm their love for one another in a trio of artfully staged embraces near play's end.

Greif also elicits several first-rate portrayals from his spirited ensemble. Leading the company is the scintillating Olivo, who exudes both unbridled sensuality and high-minded romance as the conflicted drug addict, Mimi. Endowed with a lilting singing voice and an electrifying stage presence, Olivo deftly locates Mimi's weakness for fleeting gratification when she sings, "There's only yes, only tonight/No other course, no other way/No day but today." A few scenes later, Olivo summons Mimi's courage to declare her undying love for another as she intones, "Without you, the ground thaws, the rain falls, the grass grows, the children play/But I die without you." This despite the fact that a few ear-splitting sound levels on opening night distorted Olivo's lyrics--along with some instrumental interludes--to the point that they were sometimes impossible to comprehend. Since it's supposed to be an opera, why not simply rely on a few well-placed surtitles to augment the (minimally amplified) purity of the singers' voices?

Whether he's kicking up his heels to lift the spirits of his adoptive compatriots or gently delivering a fond remark to his closest friends, Earl's outlandish Angel is always a delight. Although Jackson is relegated to background duty for much of the night, he nonetheless rattles the rafters with his heartbreaking reprise of the Act One duet between Tom and Angel, "I'll Cover You." Anderson's gravely voice, though expressive, sometimes flattens the arc of a few of Roger's soaring ballads, but the talented actor hits his stride during "Without You," his aforementioned duet with Olivo. In addition to crafting a subtly shaded portrait of the demanding Joanne, Martin delivers a virtuosic, spine-tingling riff during one of the show's many group numbers. And Keaney's self-deprecating rendering of performance artist Maureen is an enjoyable parody of self-absorbed "artistic geniuses."

To be sure, the living-on-the-razor's-edge pursuits of these grunge-wearing artistes might not make sound financial sense to the stuffed shirts and smart frocks that nightly inhabit the Buell's upholstered comfort. But none of that really matters. As these fine young bohemians beautifully convey, glory rests in the sublime arrangement of a handful of musical notes, and nobility resides in a friend's whispered promise of unconditional love.

Rent, through January 17 at the Buell Theatre, 14th and Curtis in the Plex, 303-893-4100.


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