This first national company of the late Jonathan Larson’s smash hit “Rent” is actually more focused and of a piece than when it opened on Broadway. Perhaps director Michael Greif and his producers have acted upon what they learned from their Off Broadway-to-Broadway experience; whatever the case, the new production’s youthful cast is boundlessly energetic and talented, its production values gleamingly precise. Even taking into account an opening-night crowd heavily biased in its favor, “Rent” clearly has the ability to involve and elicit strong vocal responses from its audiences. What more could be asked of it?
In addition to a cast that’s been welded into a genuine ensemble, the production has more than a few standout performances — led, more so than on Broadway, by narrator, witness and recorder Mark, a fledgling filmmaker brilliantly played by bleached-blond, bespectacled Luther Creek. He provides a rock-solid pivot around which this “Rent” swirls.
Then there are the two women of well-known parentage who stand on their own talents. The solo-monikered Simone, Nina Simone’s daughter, is a lusty and aggressive Mimi who nevertheless possesses a welcome sweetness of character, flinging herself heart, soul and body into her big numbers, “Out Tonight” and “Without You.” She has a genuine romantic rapport with Sean Keller’s bewildered Roger, who has both a vital stage presence and singing voice.
And, in what may be the musical’s most difficult role, Carrie Hamilton (daughter of Carol Burnett and Joe Hamilton) makes bisexual sex-tease Maureen her own. She and Sylvia MacCalla’s admirable lawyer Joanne tear into their lesbian love-hate duet, “Take Me or Leave Me,” with unshakable confidence.
The characters in “Rent” represent a true New York bohemian melting pot — white, black, Hispanic, hetero, homo, bisexual, transvestite — and the cast mirrors this. C.C. Brown’s loving Tom Collins and Stephan Alexander’s drag queen Angel play beautifully together, the latter camping it up with enormous agility and elan. But the whole cast is super-vibrant (particularly when lined up stage-front), riding triumphantly over the musical’s excessive sentimentality and a silly ending in which Mimi rises from the dead.
The propulsive effect of the musical owes a lot to the nonstop beat provided by its five-piece onstage combo, superbly led by Jim Abbott. And once again Paul Clay’s found-pieces sculptural set, Angela Wendt’s iconoclastic costumes and Blake Burba’s stabbing lights weave their spell. This touring “Rent” is loud, more so it seems than on Broadway, and could stand one or two fewer decibels, even if Kurt Fischer’s sound remains a paragon of clarity.
The production has reopened Boston’s beautifully renovated Shubert Theater. The run has been extended through April 27, but on the strength of the production’s virtues (not to mention the extraordinary national publicity), “Rent” is bound to run in the Hub for some time.