The setup: The rock musical RENT, inspired by Puccini's La Bohème, recreates the artistic and social life of Manhattan's East Village, and adds to poverty and artistic drive the ever-present specter of AIDS. But in the Stage Door production, the exuberant joy of living bursts through the grime to make this a celebration of life, of love and of the transforming power even of death.
The Execution: This production succeeds in creating a Dickensian world populated by fully drawn flesh-and-blood characters. The director, Marc Anthony Glover, has staged it so brilliantly that the audience is transported totally into the world created by Jonathan Larson, who wrote the music and lyrics -- and died on the day of the off-Broadway premiere.
Glover is aided enormously by a superb set designed by Dario Failla and Glover himself that seems unobtrusive but comes to exciting life as its numerous multiple levels are put to dramatic use, especially by Leslie Sharp as Mimi, who single-handedly covers every inch of it in a vocal and dramatic tour-de-force. She is authentic and riveting, as is Alexandra Musgrove as political activist Maureen, who has a lover but hasn't quite grasped the concept of fidelity. Patrick Barton has strength as both a singer and an actor, and brings emotional depth to his role as Angel's lover. Robert Pimentel plays the young Angel with sensitivity and warmth, and wears his stunning drag outfits with poise and style.
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Almost all the costumes, by Paula Malik and Susie Sutton, are exciting while remaining authentic -- some come close to works of art themselves. The complicated lighting, by Glover and Failla, is highly effective. The cast is huge, and almost all the ensemble acting is breathtakingly good.
The production delivers so much pleasure that it may be churlish to find fault -- but I will, anyway. As the documentary filmmaker Mark, Bryan Burleigh seems out of place in the seething maelstrom of pulsing humanity elsewhere onstage. He wears glasses, has altar-boy good looks and sports a blue-and-white scarf so big it wears him instead of the other way around. It all seems oddly preppy for Avenue B, where it's considered suburban to wear matching socks. And he never seemed to have the bond with his camera that one would expect from a filmmaker. Jimmy Brady plays songwriter Roger, and has a powerful stage presence and a wonderful voice; with these gifts, it's not necessary to "sell" the acting, which should be invisible. And I didn't feel the poignancy of his yearning for one great song. None of this detracts from the wonderful staging, including the death and funeral of Angel, both of which could hardly have been presented more effectively. Jonathan Larson would be proud.
The verdict: You may have seen RENT, but it's not likely you've seen it staged so wonderfully. With talent like this, you can't miss. Go see it, if you see nothing else this year.
Through Aug. 14, Stage Door Inc., 284 Pasadena Town Square Mall, 832-582-7606.