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Boston's Rent lives up to expectations

Rent, Jonathan Larson's rock opera, tells the story of struggling artists in New York's Greenwich Village. The musical is playing at the Shubert Theatre now through April.


Written by Jonathan Larson.

Directed by Michael Greif.

At the Shubert Theatre through April 27.

Tuesday through Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday 7 p.m., and Sunday and Saturday at 2 p.m.

By Joel M. Rosenberg
Staff Reporter

Go see Rent. It's incredible. The first rock opera that successfully fuses music with the show, Rent starts out strong and just keeps getting stronger during its 35-song look at a year in the life of struggling artists in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. It's got everything - it's funny yet heartbreaking, extremely engrossing, with addictive music, and the energy is tremendous from a young, unknown cast. Even with all of the hype surrounding this show, it surpasses expectations.

There are two stories to Rent. The first is the show itself, which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for drama and four 1996 Tony awards, including best musical. Rent portrays Mark, a filmmaker, living with his roommate Roger, an ex-junkie musician recovering from his girlfriend's suicide after she found out they had AIDS. Their ex-roommate, Benny, who now owns the building, wants to evict them in order to build a studio complex.That is, unless they help Benny by stopping Mark's ex-girlfriend, Maureen, now a lesbian involved with JoAnne, a black Harvard Law graduate, from performing at a protest rally to stop Benny's plans.

Mark's and Roger's other ex-roommate, Tom Collins, falls in love with a drag queen, Angel, while at an HIV-positive life support meeting. Meanwhile, Roger starts seeing Mimi, a sadomasochistic stripper, who loses her heroin stash in his room. The story develops from there.

Everything about this show is great. From the opening number you can tell this is no ordinary rock opera, with the actors wearing headsets because the music is so loud and rocking. Because the characters are so likable, the story so contemporary, and the play so good, putting in a mix of issues but not making them issues - interracial couples, homosexual couples, interracial homosexual couples, most of whom have AIDS - gives them a more mainstream acceptance with a more diverse audience, as opposed to other attempts like Angels in America. The performances are all strong, especially Stephan Alexander as Angel, whose solo number "Today 4 U" could have gotten a standing ovation on its own. This show even has references to MIT, where Tom Collins sings, "They expelled me for my theory/of actual reality/which I'll soon impart/to the couch potatoes at New York/University." Collins later rewires an ATM machine. The Harvard Law grad, on the other hand, can't fix a broken microphone.

The second story of Rent involves composer and playwright Jonathan Larson, who obsessed over this play for seven years, only to find his health failing due to stress, and his wallet as empty as those of his characters. The day of the final dress rehearsal, Larson died in his kitchen of an aortic aneurysm. It led to tremendous press and speculation, and makes some of the songs incredibly eerie - "One Song Glory," Roger's solo about writing, "one song/before I go/glory/one song to leave behind," and "Seasons of Love," which talks about the length of a year, "five hundred twenty-five thousand/six hundred minutes/how do you figure/a last year on earth?" The speculation has been realized, and it just adds to the legend of the show that is lauded as the harbinger for the future of Broadway.

I've read other reviews of this show, and they make it seem only pretty good, with lines like "at once overwhelms and disappoints." They criticize it by comparing it to the play's inspiration, Puccini's La Boheme. They complain that the lack of criticism is due to the dramatic story of the playwright, and that nobody would dare suggest improvements. They complain that the hype isn't justified. They're full of crap. This show is one of the most entertaining things I've ever seen, theater or otherwise, and is easily the best thing to do in Boston right now.

Go see Rent. You have no excuse not to, nor should you need one.