When “Rent” premiered Off-Broadway in 1996, the raw rock opera about a group of starving artists and other misfits struggling to get by in Lower Manhattan's East Village was ground-breaking, its caché enhanced by the sudden death — at age 35 — of its creator Jonathan Larson on the eve of the opening.
Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini's 1896 opera “La Bohème,” the show tackles issues of poverty, gentrification, gender-nonconforming relationships, addiction and the HIV epidemic head on. After moving to Broadway a few months later, “Rent” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical, ran for 12 years until 2008 and spawned countless productions all over the world.
“Rent” remains relevant today, even if specifics like the gentrifying neighborhoods, deadly drugs and plagues killing friends and lovers have changed somewhat.
The main problem with Porchlight Music Theatre's production, directed by Adrian Abel Azevedo, is that it treats “Rent” like a relic of another time, robbing the story and characters of most of their power to move us, despite the enormously talented ensemble.
The action extends from one Christmas Eve to the next, and Azevedo pegs it to 1991 and 1992. Ann Davis' scenic design puts the period front and center with what looks like an oversize audio or video cassette, which has lighted edges and one side that whirls as messages are recorded. Smooth Medina's projections on a screen in the middle of the cassette and on a wrinkled downstage curtain that wasn't working too well on opening night also date the proceedings, though they're a bit fuzzy.
Unfortunately, the indoor and outdoor spaces aren't delineated too well, so unless you know the show or listen very carefully, it is sometimes hard to figure out which scenes are taking place where, except perhaps for the cafe setting of the rousing first act closer, “La Vie Bohème.” Like the other choral numbers — among them “Seasons of Love,” which opens the second act with the entire cast lined up across the stage — they're sung very well with the help of music director Dr. Michael McBride, who also leads the backstage five-man band.
The other important indoor space is the grungy loft shared by documentary filmmaker and narrator Mark Cohen (David Moreland) and ex-lead singer and guitarist Roger Davis (Shraga D. Wasserman), an HIV-positive ex-junkie who wants to write one meaningful song before he dies. They have a third roommate, Tom Collins (Eric Lewis), an anarchist professor with AIDS, but he moves out to be with street percussionist and drag queen Angel Dumott Schunard (Josh Pablo Szabo), who also has AIDS.
A more tumultuous couple consists of Mark's ex-girlfriend, performance artist Maureen Johnson (Lucy Godínez,) who has taken up with highly educated public interest lawyer Joanne Jefferson (Teressa LaGamba). Rounding out the main characters are Mimi Márquez (Alix Rhode), an HIV-positive stripper and drug addict who lives in the same building as Mark and Roger and becomes Roger's love interest, and Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III (Abraham Shaw), another former Mark-Roger roommate who married into money and now is the landlord the others consider yuppie scum. He also had an affair with Mimi at some point in the past.
These complicated relationships play out in scenes and songs of love, longing and loss. The most captivating is between Collins and Angel, including their meeting after Collins gets mugged and their love song, “I'll Cover You.” Lewis has a terrific voice, and Szabo's Angel is irrepressibly engaging.
Well-matched Godinez and LaGamba duke it out as Maureen and Joanne in “Take Me or Leave Me,” but more amusing than their on-again off-again romantic battlefield is Maureen's “Over the Moon,” Godinez's hilariously deadpan performance art piece protesting the eviction of the squatters from the lot next to Benny's building.
Sadly, Wasserman and Rhode don't have any chemistry as Roger and Mimi, even though theirs should be the grand passion of the musical. He just seems to be angry at her most of the time, as well as self-pitying and self-absorbed. She's left at loose ends not knowing what to do, and in the end, their lack of connection makes the whole evening fall flat.