The audience for Ignite Theatre's Rent is large, boisterous, young, and deeply involved with the action. Throughout the evening, you hear hoots of appreciative laughter, empathetic breath intakes and murmurs, audible sniffles at the sad parts. This enthusiasm is matched by the enthusiasm on stage, the actors singing their hearts out and giving their all, clearly glad to be together and performing, thrilled with the material.
Rent began as a workshop production in 1994 and opened on Broadway in 1996. The work of writer-composer Jonathan Larson — who died unexpectedly on the morning before the first preview and was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for the work — it is a tribute to Puccini's La Bohème, transplanted with a strong dash of irony from Paris to New York's funky Lower East Side, and set in the late 1980s. The artists here are filmmaker Mark and songwriter Roger, squatters in an abandoned flat where the only heat is supplied by an illegal fire in a metal garbage can. Roger's great love is a tough little exotic dancer, Mimi; Mark has just been dumped by performance artist Maureen for Joanne, a Princeton-educated attorney. Their friend Collins, a professor at NYU, is mugged as he arrives to visit and tended to on the street by cross-dressing street drummer Angel. The drug of choice is heroin, and in this version, early death comes not from tuberculosis, but from AIDs: Roger and Mimi both have the virus, and so do Collins and Angel. Mark, so far untouched by disease, is left wondering if he'll eventually find himself entirely alone.
The AIDS epidemic decimated the New York arts scene in the 1980s, but the plot rambles against that dramatic backdrop. There's a lot of stuff about mean landlord Ben; many on-again, off-again romances; much soul-searching. Of the couples, only Collins and Angel remain sweetly and faithfully together throughout.
Directors Keith Rabin and Amy Osatinski have gotten good to terrific performances from their cast. The absolute stunner is mezzo-soprano Lindsey Falduto, a clear, strong, lovely singer with a fiercely expressive stage presence — lewd, funny, forceful. She plays promiscuous Maureen and first appears toward the end of the first act singing a ridiculous parody of performance art called "Over the Moon." It must have been hard finding a Joanne who could match her for sheer magnetism, but Erica Trisler does it with a gutsy, grounded performance and a voice that plays nicely both with and against Falduto's. Charismatic J Tanner Kaler — another fine voice — and the vulnerably sexy Jenna Moll Reyes are romantic lovers Roger and Mimi. Mark and Collins get notable performances from Ethan Knowles and Brandon Lopez, respectively. And it's impossible not to love Carlos Jimenez's gentle, warm-spirited Angel.
Still, there's a major problem with this otherwise vital production: Nearly the entire musical is sung, and while you sense subtlety, humor, pathos and complexity in the music, the sound quality is so poor that it all gets flattened. I don't know much about the acoustics at the Aurora Fox, but I can't help thinking that these voices would project well without augmentation. Instead, the actors wear highly visible mikes, which distort the sound so that every word has a felty fuzz around it, as if you'd hit the damper pedal on a piano. And the balance between voices and the five-member band's solid accompaniment is off, so that the orchestration sometimes threatens to drown the singing. Losing many of the words, I also lost the thread of the admittedly unfocused plot; the friend who came with me was worried through the first act that Roger hadn't told Mimi he was HIV-positive. After Googling a synopsis during intermission, I was able to assure her that Mimi was positive, too, and that they had confessed their status to each other in the early song "I Should Tell You."
With more focus on precision, choreo-graphy and detail, the members of this fearless and ambitious company should be able carve out an important spot in the theater scene that artistic director Rabin clearly envisions. But first, you have to be able to hear them clearly.