Bohemia needs low rents. In the '60s, I had a $22-per-month apartment in the Lower East Side of New York (as it was called before the real estate moguls coined the more glitzy term East Village). The bathtub was in the kitchen, where a large rat scavenged every night. A shared bathroom was down the hallway. We organized a rent strike to force the landlord to turn on the heat in winter. Since the door to the street was broken, you sometimes had to brave a blizzard to pee. The 'summer of love" quickly soured into the 'winter of overdoses," but the rock music at the Filmore East was deafening to the bitter end.
These youthful bohemian experiences of mine, however, did not help me connect emotionally with Rent, which recently got a full throttle production at Le Petit. But then again, imagine an ex-GI who had fought from island to island in World War II sitting down to see South Pacific. Maybe experience confines the imagination.
Jonathan Larson's Rent is an updated, rock version of Puccini's La Boheme. It opened in 1996, won four Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. It ran for 12 years, and a touring company played at the Saenger in 1999.
Puccini's opera follows a group of penniless artistic souls in Paris in 1830. New York City in the 20th century is rougher and tougher and a whole lot raunchier than 19th century Paris. It's apparently more intricate as well. To aid the audience, Le Petit put a short synopsis of Rent in the playbill. I'm glad it was there, because despite the irresistible energy of the cast, it often was not entirely clear what was going on.
The play begins in an industrial-looking nowhere-land of scaffolds, stairs, platforms and such. A free-form sculpture made from bicycle pieces hangs from the ceiling. The story concerns the denizens of this abode. Basically, musician Roger (Joey Taranto) is in the dumps. He is HIV positive, contracted either from a partner or intravenous drug use. Roger's friend and housemate Mark Cohen (Christopher Woods) puts his creative energy into documenting the scene with his movie camera. Another friend, Benny (Tory Andrus), has bought the building where all these arty types are living rent-free. He's also purchased the adjacent lot that's home to a bunch of homeless people. Benny wants to develop the property into some sort of high-tech artistic project. He demands rent money from the arty types and tries to get the homeless people kicked off his property. Meanwhile, Joanne Jefferson (Paris Robertson), a Harvard-educated lawyer, has hooked up romantically with Maureen (Leslie Limberg), who is Roger's former lover. Maureen is a performance artist and announces she'll do a protest act aimed at Benny's development plan. She performs a dainty but hilarious song about the cow that jumped over the moon, in which the 'moo" in moon is more bovine than interstellar.
The plot is complicated and often moves forward by way of song. Furthermore, there are many detours and side characters, like the drag queen Angel (the always endearing Roy Haylock) and his new flame Tom Collins (Christopher Bentivegna).
If you narrow the story to a single focus, the center would have to be the attraction that pulls heroin-addict Mimi and guitarist Roger together. Mimi (a sizzling, swivel-hipped Idella Johnson) pays Roger a visit that makes Lola (of 'Whatever Lola Wants" fame) look like a cloistered nun. For those of us outside the convent, it was all risqué good fun. Eventually, we learn that both Roger and Mimi are HIV positive, and that the infection is one of the counter forces that holds them back from one another.
All this makes for quite a rich stew. It's vigorously sung " so vigorously, you long for a bit more modulation. Must the pedal always be pressed to the metal?
Nonetheless, directors Derek Franklin and Sonny Borey have put together a seamless crowd-pleaser. On the night I saw the show, there wasn't an empty seat in the house and the audience leaped to their feet as soon as the last number ended. A tip of the hat goes to Karen Hebert (choreography), Scott Sauber and Nancy Macko (lighting) and Cliff Stromeyer (sound). Roy Haylock, Judy Claverie, Regina Schlotzhauer and Danielle Harrell Scheib are given credit for 'costume coordination," a new category to me, but the costumes were good.