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RENT back to Seattle with stellar cast
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RENT back to Seattle with stellar cast

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

RENT
Paramount Theatre
Through June 21


RENT has traveled through Seattle on two previous occasions, both welcomed with exceptionally deserved enthusiasm, and last night's revival opening of RENT is no different. It also had the added addition of joyful irony. From the simple act of walking on stage, applause vibrating the floors and screams rattling the rafters greeted each of the main characters. The same goes for the appreciation of the show's beautiful, and sometimes poignantly haunting, melodies. The ironic part is at least half of the audience couldn't have been older than 10 when RENT premiered on Broadway in 1996.

Led by Adam Pascall and Anthony Rapp, recreating their original roles of Roger and Marc respectively, the cast was stellar. The leads continued their synergy from original productions and drew the audience into their world immediately. Although their voices showed evidence of the rock score's toll, the power and clarity were there, and it was easy to understand the accolades and nominations these two men achieved for the roles.

The two actors' performances that shone the brightest were those of drag queen Angel and the equally tragic role of Mimi. The character Angel Schunard is played by Justin Johnston, and done exceptionally well with humor, sensitivity and an infectious enthusiasm. His voice stays clear and powerful despite the athletic jumping, dancing and tabletop drum playing in "Today 4 U." Seeing his acrobatics and fervent energy is made more poignant when he reprises the song in "Contact" before his HIV related tragic death. When Tom Collins (Michael McElroy) sings the elegy reprise "I'll Cover You" at Angel's death, we can empathize his lover's loss and feel each note of his pain, allowing our hearts to break with every pause for breath between the words beautifully belted out in lament.

Lexi Lawson plays Mimi Marquez, a street smart HIV-positive exotic dancer with a fierce vulnerability that calls to us, like moths to flames, making us crave more as our hearts are being singed. Hearing her voice, it is no wonder she was an American Idol contestant. We can only be grateful that she left the competition to play this role. The coy girl whispers "Light My Candle" with hints of the femme fatale that ignites in "Out Tonight." We can hear her fear and weaknesses in "Without You" and share Roger's grief at her death. The fire escape/pole dance is done with such ferocity that, regardless of sexual orientation, the audience squirms and purrs with an internal, delightful lechery.

Other cast members added considerable talents to bring together a great show. Nicolette Hart (Maureen) and Haneefah Wood (Joanne) have good voices and there's playfulness to their interactions as on/off lovers. The only problem is it doesn't seem to build or go anywhere. The song "Take Me or Leave Me" should be a lit stick of dynamite, full of sexual tensions bursting through an argumentative song, but it only fizzles before sputtering out. Their connection didn't seem to outweigh their arguments and if I was either character, I'm not sure I'd spend Act II contemplating reuniting.

Jacques C. Smith as Benjamin Coffin III does a good job with the role's limitations. He plays well the ambitious character that leaves his "bohemian" friends for a wealthy wife, but we don't get the feeling he's as "ruthless" as the other characters make him out to be or that the role requires. Crystal Monée Hall does an excellent job as the soloist in the signature song "Seasons of Love." Her voice rails and truly earned the round of applause for her solo that I'm sure she receives (and deservingly so) nightly.

No matter how great the talents are of the actors in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, it is the show itself that is the main character. Dealing with homelessness, drug addictions, HIV, and the circle of friends we call our chosen family, the show has redefined Broadway and paved the way for other shows (Spring Awakening) to come along and challenge taboos. It brings home the tragedy of Jonathan Larson's (the composer/lyricist/writer) death even more, as he died of an aortic aneurysm the day before the Off-Broadway premier. Only giving one interview about his beloved work, he would never know the success nor how much he influenced an entire generation.

It hits me now that I was partially wrong in the opening paragraph of this review. Thinking back on the average age of the audience members and by judging of the equally enthusiastic long line of signature collectors at the stage door, maybe the word "irony" is misused. These 20-somethings were raised in a world where homelessness, drug addictions, and HIV infections are in the daily news. They have never known a world without those common threads. They understand that family can be the ones we choose, that compassion comes from within and that many things - including 525,600 minutes - measure a year. And they would have reached a beginning of world awareness at the time RENT premiered in 1996. They are the generation influenced by this show and therefore, in turn will teach it to the next. It may not be ironic, but it is joyous.

"Viva La Vie Bohéme!"

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