I drove like a bat out of hell: Three hours and ten minutes, Houston to Dallas, must be some sort of record. But speed limits and rush-hour traffic were not going to make me miss the opening number of Rent, the same touring production premiering here in Houston on Wednesday. Feeling road-dog weary, I elbowed my way into the crowded theater lobby, clutching my tickets, and was immediately struck by the audience. They were so, well, young. They stood or sat, Indian-style, on the lobby floor, dressed in Spandex and bell-bottoms, showing off their midriffs, platinum buzz cuts and pierced body parts, both the boys and the girls, boys with boys, girls with girls, folks of every color, giggling and obviously pumped. None of that rarefied, highbrow, upper-crust theater stuff here. And this was Dallas. Just think what Houstonians will bring to Jones Hall.
But all that youthful exuberance shouldn't keep away the older and possibly more discriminating theatergoer. Because for all its loud, sloppy, over-the-top sentimentality, Rent is terrific good fun. Just ask the two teenage girls who sat behind me, bumping the back of my seat with their platform boots.
The girls started clapping when the soundmen walked onto set designer Paul Clay's dark, industrial-looking stage. The young men ducked under the steel scaffolding, stepped over the multileveled open platforms, and looked back at the bare, cinder-block rear wall of the stage. Just a couple of quintessential Generation Xers, complete with baggy jeans and horn-rimmed glasses. I thought they were checking the mikes when it dawned on me that the girls behind me had seen this show before. They were Rent groupies; they knew these guys were really actors. And then, without a blackout or a curtain rise or any of that old-hat theater stuff, the music blared and the songs began with all the unexpected energy of a wild stampede. The show was off and rolling, and nothing was going to get in its way.
For those of you who know nada about this ballyhooed show, Rent is the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning creation of the late Jonathan Larson. This rock opera of the '90s, loosely based on Puccini's La Boheme, reveals Larson's expansive and eclectic musical taste; tunes show influences as diverse as salsa, Prince, the Beatles and even the good old musical theater of Bernstein and Sondheim. All these sounds slide together to make this show mesmerizing, exciting and at times even moving.
Never mind that it's kinda hard to understand a lot of what the singers are singing, what with so much happening on the stage. Clarity has never been the ultimate goal of rock or rock operas. And in this production, what's missing in clarity is often made up for by the sheer enthusiasm of the performers. They plainly love every minute of this gig.
The central story is Mimi's (Julia Santana), the S&M club dancer/junkie who falls in love with Roger (Christian Mena), the heartbroken musician who hasn't been able to write a new song since he lost his girlfriend; she slit her wrists when she found out they had AIDS. Along with Mimi and Roger's story we also hear the love story of Angel (Andy Senor), a transvestite who loves everybody in his angel-hearted way, and Tom Collins (Mark Leroy Jackson), a computer geek who's not above using his using his hacker know-how to filch a few bucks when everybody's down on their luck. Remember, this is Bohemia, where nobody has money, even if they do have middle-class educations and come from Scarsdale and New Jersey. Joanne (Monique Daniels), a Harvard law student, and Maureen (Leigh Hetherington), an East Village performance artist who has more guts than talent, compose the third couple. Mark (Kirk McDonald), who's alone, having been recently dumped by Maureen, rounds out the cast of characters. He's a wannabe filmmaker trying to decide whether to sell out and make lots of money by directing segments of a yellow-journalism TV magazine.
Sound complicated? Maybe a bit too politically correct? Even a bit implausible?
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Keep in mind that theater is about suspending your disbelief; Rent is so much fun that you'll enjoy yourself even if you can't quite buy the story. More than that, you might even find yourself moved. When Angel dies of AIDS during Act Two, sniffles came not only from the girls behind me but from all corners of the theater.
Every number is energized; standouts include the title song, "Rent," along with "I'll Cover You" (sung by Mark Leroy Jackson and Andy Senor), "Take Me or Leave Me" (sung by Monique Daniels and Leigh Hetherington) and Hetherington's "Over the Moon," a good-natured poke at performance artists. The cast is altogether terrific, and the depth of their collective talents is plumbed by Marlies Yearby's uninhibited, loose-limbed choreography and Michael Greif's frenetic and ecstatic direction.
This show will undoubtedly delight most theatergoers. To quote the girls sitting behind me: "Oh my God! It was just awesome!"
Rent plays through March 15 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 227-3974.