Back in 1996, Adam Pascal was a personal trainer-turned-rock musician, Anthony Rapp was a struggling actor known primarily for his role as a kid in the 1987 film Adventures in Babysitting, and much of the current audience for the enchanting national tour of Rent — in which Pascal and Rapp are reprising their roles of songwriter Roger Davis and filmmaker Mark Cohen — were barely out of diapers! But rest assured, these pre-teens already seem to know Jonathan Larson’s still sublime lyrics as well as where and when to clap along.
Time hasn’t been totally kind to Larson’s award-winning musical sensation, which combines Puccini’s La Boheme with a story of then-contemporary East Village culture and the effects of the AIDS virus on its denizens. But Michael Greif’s new production is far stronger than the non-Equity tours that have played the country in recent years. With the show’s original production values again intact and with the caliber of professional talent on stage (including original “Seasons of Love” soloist Gwen Stewart), it is rather like watching the Broadway production after it took a short power nap. Fans of the original production are sure to be pleased, as will those audiences still unfamiliar with the musical.
It’s true that Pascal and Rapp, who are now in their late-thirties, both jump up and down a bit less. But not only do they look younger onstage than they did in the recent film version, they also sound better vocally now than they did 12 years ago, and they make stronger, more informed acting choices. For instance, their “What You Own” duet has never been more aggressive and full of longing.
In the supporting roles, Michael McElroy — another Broadway veteran — provides a strong, emotional performance as computer genius and supposed anarchist Tom Collins. Nicolette Hart is very playful as Maureen, Mark’s former lover; while Lexi Lawson — one of few people in the cast who has never played her role before — is energetic as the supposedly-doomed Mimi, although her performance (as well as Hart’s) could use a bit more nuance.
Of course, the East Village of 1996 is not the same one we know in 2009. Starving artists are no longer to be found in abandoned lofts on Avenue B. But thanks to the youthful, joyous spirit of its score, Rent will continue to be produced for even future generations to enjoy.