This ‘Rent’ is on the money

Haneefah Wood and Anthony Rapp in “Rent: The Broadway Tour.’’ Rapp is reprising the role that made him a star. Haneefah Wood and Anthony Rapp in “Rent: The Broadway Tour.’’ Rapp is reprising the role that made him a star. (Joan Marcus)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / July 18, 2009
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The production of “Rent’’ that’s at the Colonial Theatre through July 26 lives up to its full billing: “Rent: The Broadway Tour.’’ It feels far closer to Broadway than the other wan, scruffy versions that have limped through town on earlier tours.

Both Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, who originated the roles of Roger and Mark in Jonathan Larson’s slacker “Boheme,’’ are reprising the roles that made them Broadway stars, and they’re performing with an intensity that seems to energize everyone onstage. Beyond that, the show’s sound design by Brian Ronan is a huge improvement over earlier tours. For what seems like the first time ever, it’s actually possible to understand the lyrics - and even follow the plot.

Of course, the plot was never all that hard to follow, especially for those with even a passing familiarity with “La Boheme,’’ the Puccini opera of young, tubercular poets and artists in Paris that served as Larson’s scaffolding for a tale of young, HIV-positive rockers and drag artists in New York. But being able to hear clearly what the characters are singing to each other makes the parallels more precise - and that, oddly enough, makes the particular setting and tone of this story slightly less irritating than it could otherwise be.

The problem, at least for anyone who was over 30 when the show debuted in 1996, was that what might have seemed romantic in Puccini’s Latin Quarter too often felt self-indulgent and self-righteous in Larson’s East Village. The kids bellow proudly about not paying the rent - but why shouldn’t they pay the rent? Even artists owe something, don’t they?

This time around, though, such questions feel less nagging than before. Partly because 1996 is fading into the past, and partly because this cast is so endearingly charismatic, we’re able to see Roger and Mimi and the rest of the gang as romantic inventions, not tiresome real-life spongers.

And just look at Angela Wendt’s costumes: vinyl as tight as a coat of paint, artfully ripped lingerie, nerd-boy glasses, plaid flannel shirts - these are lovingly created period renditions of mid-’90s hipster cool, made with as much care as any 19th-century bodice or weskit. Now that they look a little dated, paradoxically, they’re also a little cooler than they used to be.

The balanced sound mix also gives the music a clean shine that it has lacked before. Particularly on the lovely “I’ll Cover You,’’ the bouncy-sassy “La Vie Boheme,’’ and, of course, “Seasons of Love,’’ we get to hear the musicality of Larson’s writing as well as the rocking beat.

The opening-night audience certainly responded with wild enthusiasm - cheering and hooting, clapping rhythmically, and leaping to its feet at the end. Often the show felt more like a concert tour than a musical. But then that’s part of the appeal of “Rent’’ to its audiences, which are still, 13 years on, far younger than your average theater crowd.

Pascal and Rapp, on the other hand, are naturally not so young as they were. This doesn’t matter much for Rapp, whose nerdy filmmaker character always had a kind of middle-aged stodginess.

But it’s more challenging for Pascal, because part of the pathos of Roger’s depression and despair arises from how young he is to be feeling this bad. Pascal simply doesn’t have that glow of doomed youth anymore. And while he finds ways to make his gaunter looks work for the role, there are still moments when his spiky blond mop looks incongruous atop the face of a grownup.

When he sings, though, all that fades: His voice cuts through the rock with power and drive, and his duets with Lexi Lawson’s fiery Mimi are particularly fine. “Rent’’ still isn’t “La Boheme,’’ and it never will be. But this time, at least, it’s gloriously itself.

RENT: THE BROADWAY TOUR Musical with book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson

Directed by: Michael Greif. Choreography, Marlies Yearby. Set, Paul Clay. Costumes, Angela Wendt. Lights, Blake Burba. Sound, Brian Ronan.

At: Colonial Theatre, through July 26. Tickets, $40-70, 800-982-2787,

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