It’s all about the struggle to embrace life and hope in the face of fear and death. But the mood is fiercely positive in Rent, the groundbreaking musical now on the boards at Cabrillo Stage, the opening salvo in its summer musical theater season.
First produced in New York in 1996, Jonathan Larson’s acclaimed musical went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, a Tony, and many other awards for its timely story of impoverished artists and other bohemians living defiantly under the shadow of AIDS in New York City’s East Village. Twenty-two years later, the theme of choosing love over fear is as potent as ever, delivered soundly in this slightly uneven but mostly compelling Cabrillo production.
Like West Side Story before it, Rent is an adaptation of a classic from another medium updated for musical theater. For Larson, the inspiration was the Puccini opera, La Bohème, about artists and poets facing poverty and deadly tuberculosis in the garrets of Paris. The characters in Rent share a freezing loft in the Village; there’s no heat, and they can’t pay the rent, for which they’re about to be evicted to join their homeless friends in the tent city next door.
Our entry into this world is Mark (ingratiating Sean Okuniewicz), observing it all through his videocam, and providing wry commentary. His roommate, rock musician Roger (Joey Pisacane, who has a brooding look and a colorful rock voice), is haunted by the specter of AIDS; his previous girlfriend committed suicide after learning she was HIV-positive. He’s determined to write one great song “to redeem this empty life.” But he keeps getting waylaid by Mimi (powerhouse singer Kiana Hamzehi), the erotic dancer and part-time junkie upstairs who wants to spark with him.
Sadie Rose brings edgy pizzazz to the role of Mark’s ex, bi-sexual performance artist, Maureen, who’s moved on to lesbian lawyer Joanne (Brianne Lopez-Cole.) (Finding common ground in mutual exasperation, Joanne and Mark sing a very funny duet, “The Maureen Tango.”) Meanwhile, gay NYU professor, Collins (the appealing Ronald Johnson Jr.) falls in love with perky street musician/drag queen Angel (a standout performance by Vinh Nguyen, who steals every scene with his exuberance and killer grin).
The complex story is stuffed with subplots and supporting characters; the 18-song opening act feels especially long (even though it takes place over a single day, Christmas Eve). But director Dustin Leonard’s inventive staging and Brance William Souza’s smart choreography keep things moving and on track. And the company makes the most of the best material.
The show’s powerfully simple message—to embrace each day of life and believe in the possibility of love—is delivered con brio in emotional ballads like “Will I?,” “Without You,” and the ensemble anthem “Seasons of Love.” In contrast, there’s the pretentious hilarity of Maureen’s performance art piece, “Over The Moon.” Rose and Lopez-Cole are also particularly effective in their raucous smackdown duet, “Take Me Or Leave Me.”
All that said, there are still a few wrinkles in the production. While it works to have the adroit five-man rock combo onstage the whole time, on opening night, there were occasional issues of relative volume between the band and the singers. Sound clarity could be a problem too; in Mimi’s Act I solo, “Out Tonight,” Hamzehi sings and dances with verve, but it was difficult to understand her lyrics.
But the production gets a grip in Act II: the narrative gains purpose, and the emotions are more incisive. Even the sound cleared up. The peculiar touch of magic realism in the play’s final moments feels at odds with the streetwise sensibility of the rest of the story, but by then, the energetic cast has already won us over.
INFO: The Cabrillo Stage production of Rent plays through July 15 at the Cabrillo Crocker Theater. Call 479-6154, or visit cabrillostage.com.