It’s rare that a piece of art can be so many opposite things at the same time, but “Rent” was that when it first took Broadway by storm in 1996.
Late writer and composer Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking and classic work incorporated pop and rock music into musical theater while still being Broadway in its bones. Its tackling of issues like HIV/AIDS and drug addiction via a group of struggling yet idealistic NYC artists diverse in race, gender and sexual orientation was both tragic and inspiring.
For the 20th anniversary tour of “Rent,” which came to Lexington for its first performance Friday night, you can add two more terms to that list: Nostalgic and timeless. You could also add a boatload of praiseworthy adjectives, because this production bowls you over with passion, emotion and an infectious and unbreakable spirit.
Based on Puccini’s “La Bohème” and set in the East Village, “Rent” revolves around a group of vagabonds who have huge artistic aspirations but are battling illness and addiction or simply trying to keep the lights on.
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Squatting in a shabby apartment, filmmaker Mark (Danny Harris Kornfield) is roommates with Roger (Kaleb Wells), a depressed musician trying to write one perfect song. He is weighed down by his heroin dependence, his HIV infection and the loss of his HIV-infected ex-girlfriend who took her own life, but he is rejuvenated by the sudden appearance of fellow addict Mimi (Skyler Volpe), an erotic dancer with HIV and her own inner demons. There is Tom Collins (Aaron Harrington), the philosophical anarchist who finds kindness and vibrance in his partner and drag performer partner Angel (David Merino), both of whom have AIDS. Finally, we have bisexual performance artist/protester Maureen (Katie Larmark), who is Mark’s ex and current girlfriend to social activist Joanne (Jasmine Easler).
The sense of urgency in Roger and Mark’s lives not only stems from lingering health and a dwindling creative window but from former roommate Benny (Christian Thompson), who has traded artistry for entrepreneurship as a landlord wanting to build a web cafe. He evicts his former roomies and the homeless neighbors to move development forward.
The musical being set at Christmas provides irony given the not-so-joyous circumstances of its main characters and the supporting cast. But even sprinkled with emotionally wrenching subject matter, turns of events and affecting ballads, the uplifting nature of this musical cannot be denied.
With a wonderfully varied cast with distinct voices all their own, the singing and acting is dynamite from start to finish. On the gritty, industrial and often abstract set and throughout the 30-plus musical numbers played by a band tucked away on the side of the stage, there are ample opportunities to showcase the cast’s musical ability. The musical’s humor, employed in the right amounts to balance out the heaviness, saturated numbers like the eccentric protest number “Over the Moon,” which had the crowd cracking up and literally “mooing” in unison at one point under the performer’s direction.
In a musical full of high points, few compare to “Rent’s” group numbers. The instantly recognizable piano pop of “Seasons of Love” featured soaring vocals from supporting cast members and garnered the biggest applause of the night.
While the impact of HIV/AIDS may not be as prevalent today, dating “Rent” to an extent, its themes of individuality, creativity and finding fulfillment have an evergreen quality. “Rent” still feels like a 20-year-old: Energetic, positive, full of life. It’s easy to see how this musical has taken up residence in the hearts of so many theater fans.
If you go
What: 20th-anniversary tour
When: 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sept. 18.
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: $30-$113; $20 front-row pit seats will be available 90 minutes before each performance at the box office, cash only, first come first served, and there is a $1 service fee.