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Theater Review: "Rent"

"Rent" celebrates 20 years at The Civic Theatre in San Diego.
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Twenty-one years ago, Jonathan Larson revived the declining rock opera genre with his Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Rent,” which took Leoncavallo’s opera “La Bohème” as inspiration. This story of starving artist types opened on Broadway in 1996 and ran for 12 years.

Now it’s back on a 20th anniversary tour, and plays through Sunday at San Diego Civic Theatre.

In Manhattan’s East Village (part of which is now the upscale Soho), “Rent” follows the lives of several broke but happy artistic types who have to scramble to make the rent.

Among them: wannabe filmmaker Mark Cohen (Danny Harris Kornfeld) and his roommate, songwriter Roger Davis (Caleb Wells), adjunct philosophy professor Tom Collins (Aaron Harrington) and his partner, drag queen percussionist Angel Schunard (David Merino), and Roger’s girlfriend, exotic dancer Mimi Marquez (Skyler Volpe). 

Also included are bisexual performance artist Maureen (Katie Lamark) and her girlfriend Joanne (Jasmine Easler), a lesbian lawyer.

It’s the late 1990s and the AIDS crisis is in full swing. Angel has AIDS, Roger is HIV positive, and landlord Benny (Christian Thompson) is hounding them all for the rent.

The story plays out on Paul Clay’s dual-level set design that can best be described as urban grunge. Clay, an installation artist, has designed a huge stage left structure with bicycle parts, pipes, a few steps and railings and other detritus of civilization. Samuel Bagalà and his five-man band sits on the lower level, stage right.

By now, “Rent” has a following deep enough that no review is unnecessary, but for what it’s worth, this is a worthy production of the well-known show.

I confess that, given a choice, I’d see the original operatic inspiration, but there’s something about these young, hopeful characters at the beginning of their careers and social lives that endures beyond the new 1990’s time frame and the AIDS crisis with which it deals, no matter what music you use.

Larson’s music is rock inspired and in my opinion offers more in the lyrics than in the melodies. It’s a pity that he died suddenly the night before the show went into previews and never saw it on the stage.

There’s some powerful singing going on here. My favorite is newcomer Harrington’s Collins, whose big baritone voice is a pleasure to listen to.

He and Merino’s Angel, the AIDS victim in the group, will bring a tear to your eye with “I’ll Cover You.”

Lamark nearly brings down the house with Maureen’s comic number “Over The Moon,” but her steady partner Joanne illustrates her relationship problems with the flighty Maureen in “We’re Okay.”

Skyler Volpe’s Mimi impresses from the first notes of “Light My Candle,” and Kaleb Wells speaks (sings) for the pre-hit songwriter in his “One Song Glory.”

Mark’s “Halloween” speaks movingly for the unattached: “Why are entire years strewn/on the cutting room floor of memory/When single frames from one magic night/Forever flicker in close-up on the 3-D Imax of my mind?”

Christian Thompson’s Benny doesn’t get much respect when he threatens to evict the group and proposes a businessman’s solution to his (and their) problem in “You’ll See.”

Evan Ensign’s direction wisely stays out of the way of the cast, lighting by Jonathan Spencer, sound design (Keith Caggiano) and costumes (Angela Wendt) are fine, and Marlies Yearby’s choreography adds a nice touch.

“Rent” speaks for (and to) a particular generation, but has something to say to all of us about love and loss in “No Day But Today”: “There's only now/there's only here/give in to love/or live in fear.”

The details

“Rent” plays through January 15, 2017 at San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., Downtown.

Thursday and Friday at 7:30 pm; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 pm.

Tickets: (619) 570-1100 or broadwaysd.com