When Jonathan Larson’s rock opera Rent, loosely based on Puccini’s La Boheme, debuted 20 years ago to a Pulitzer and Tony for Best Musical, it felt so edgy, so raunchy, so shocking with its cast of young radicals: the addicts, the drag queen, the bisexual, the stripper. Despite evolving societal norms and newer crises eclipsing the AIDS epidemic, this blockbuster still has power. With a pulsing beat and haunting earworms, it follows an unforgettable cast of characters for one year as they wrestle with the seven deadly sins and private turmoil only to realize that happiness lies only in living each moment as if it were their last.
Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre has assembled a stellar cast of singer/dancers for this production, starting with Tim German as Mark, the videographer who records it all and learns the price of success when his creative genius meets corporate TV greed. At issue is his coverage of a housing firestorm surrounding former roommate Benny (Matthew Walter), who has turned ruthless landlord since marrying into money. When Benny padlocks the building and a tent city sprouts up, the cops and the media are there. So is protest artist Maureen (Loghan Bazan), Mark’s attention-whore ex who left him for an attorney named Joanne (Andrea Greenwald).
When Mark’s old friend Tom Collins (Christian Gonzalez), a mathematical genius, rolls back into town, he is rolled by gangstas on the street and rescued by a cross-dressing Angel (Nicholas Carter), who becomes the love of his life (Today 4 U). As both men are HIV positive, their support group plays a large role as the story progresses. Mark’s other roommate, guitarist Roger (David Colton), is similarly afflicted and spends the whole show composing his magnum opus (One Song Glory and Your Eyes) before the virus that killed his girlfriend claims him. Roger is a content loner until he meets Mimi (Athena Blackwood), an exotic dancer (Out Tonight) and Benny’s sometime girlfriend. It’s complicated, but Roger and Mimi’s affair is the catalyst for most of the show’s greatest hits, including Light My Candle, I Should Tell You, Another Day and Without You.
Momentum is slow to build, especially regarding a secondary plotline that has Angel killing Benny’s dog by drumming. But once things get rocking, they don’t stop.
Greenwald is dynamite with German in Tango Maureen and with Bazan in Take Me or Leave Me. Bazan’s bizarre protest piece, Over the Moon, way eclipses the film version. German and Colton’s Living in America is raw and driving, while Gonzalez and Carter slow the pace in the dreamy Santa Fe and I’ll Cover You. The ensemble impresses with powerhouse solos by Kylie Airin Sjolie and Gabe Taylor (Seasons of Love), Kyle Gonzalez (Will I), Wesley Williams (No Day but Today). Amy Matousek, Katie McCarren, Elizabeth Pittman, Lilibeth Rabang and Brian Shatt provide solid backup.
Details are fun. Remember the Lycra and shredded denim invasion? Pay phones and bricklike cell-phones? Technological innovations like flashlights serving as spots lend poverty-chic, and the onstage band feels as natural as your noisy neighbors. Best of all, live footage of Mark’s films projected onstage provide intimacy and immediacy.
The take-away is this: Forget regret, or life is yours to miss.
If you fly the rainbow flag and like your rock intellectual and irreverent, don’t miss Rent. Runs two hours and forty minutes with intermission. Rated R for adult themes and language.