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Jeff Juday, Meredith Zeitlin,
and Michael Raine in I Sing!
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Most artists hate to be compared to other artists, because it undermines their sense of independence. It's unfortunate that any musical involving twentysomething Manhattanites will inevitably face comparison with Rent. But I Sing! begs such comparison. At times, in fact, it pleads for it--so loudly that it seems impossible to ignore.

Imagine what would happen if Jonathan Larson had handed Rent to his mother for revisions. The characters might pursue more secure jobs; they might leave Alphabet City for apartments near Central Park; it might be suggested that the gay men and women are just going through a phase; and the tempestuous passions of youth might give way to sweet stability.

Although it's definitely not la vie bohème, one could certainly argue that la vie conventional also deserves to have its story told. While Rent's bohemians snack on "a box of Captain Crunch," I Sing!'s yuppies watch their figures and eat SnackWells. Rent's Mimi mainlines heroin, whereas one of the girls in I Sing! talks about popping Prozac. And though Rent's Angel, a flamboyant drag queen, wears his sexuality on his sleeve, I Sing!'s Charlie seeks a comfortable closet.

The members of the I Sing! quintet never worry about their rent; holding down steady jobs, they will always have nice homes. Rather, the quest for love propels this musical. Alan (Michael Raine) loves Heidi (Meredith Zeitlin), who has been seeing Nicky (Jeff Juday) for about three years. Nicky's fear of commitment drives him into the arms of the "wild" Pepper (Jodie Langel) -- presumably named for her spiciness -- just when the "confused" Charlie also finds himself in love with her. Who will end up together? Not everything works out according to plan, even if the group does sing "I like movies with happy endings."

For those who find the plot trite, consider the show's title. Observe the publicity photo of five good-looking friends with broad smiles (minus a sparkling fountain, which might call to mind the sitcom Friends a bit too readily). Also note the description of the work offered in publicity materials: "A musical comedy in which 'Gen Y' meets 'F Sharp.'" I Sing! does not purport deep meaning; it couldn't emblazon its fluffy entertainment value more plainly if it were retitled 42nd Street. And, with a cast of strong vocalists, it does entertain.

But I Sing! gets by with more than a little help from its friend Rent, practically lifting the quirky Mark Cohen character from the Larson show to "create" the character of Alan. Michael Raine affects the nasal voice and jerky physical life of Mark as played by original Rent cast member Anthony Rapp. Where Mark moans about his ex-girlfriend Maureen while doing the tango, Alan pines for Heidi in a quasi can-can number. Mark makes jokes about being a Jew while Alan sports a "Jew Boy" T-shirt as part of a superhero costume he wears during role-play sex. Mark makes avant-garde films; Alan "drives his Celica / To the Angelika," the downtown indie film house.

Just as Alan's character is borrowed from Mark, so is Pepper borrowed from Mimi but watered down. The Rent girl likes to "put on a tight skirt and flirt with a stranger." Although Steven Epstein costumes Jodie Langel in tight skirts and pants, they're no racier than what you might find in a Laura Ashley catalogue. When Pepper's "wild side" is flaunted in one scene, what we get is a cartoonish portrayal of S&M: semi-clad in a vinyl bikini, Pepper cracks a cat-o'-nine-tails at a scared Nicky, who squirms in his red spandex briefs and devil horns. Overwhelmed, he complains that he feels "awkward." Actually, it's the scene that is awkward because it's out of place, seemingly thrown in to give the show an edge.

There are further examples of this. The Angelika reference is surely intended to resonate with artsy youth, but why would someone look to an independent film for a happy ending, as these people do? At other times, the characters discuss dildos, premature ejaculation, and pornography. Rock operatic music sustained Larson's raunchy lyrics for Rent, but Eli Bolin's George M. Cohanian, vaudeville-style score for I Sing! does not suit Sam Forman's lyrics. Lighting designer Ben Stanton's flashing pastel lights and Steven Epstein's soft-toned costumes only make the anomalies more glaring.

This kind of thing sometimes creates hilarity, as when Alan sings "Love me, Heidi / Love me till I die / Fuck me, Heidi / Fuck me till I'm dry" to the tune of the aforementioned can-can. Whitney Kroenke's choreography trades on jazz hands and chorus lines at inappropriate moments. The harder this show tries to shock us, the more it tries to be what it's not -- and, by now, it should be clear what it's not.

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