January 7, 2010 | by Patrick Folliard
‘Rent’ gets cozy

Paying the landlord — that pesky problem for Bohemians since time immemorial — takes center stage in Keegan Theatre’s vibrant production of creator Jonathan Larson’s musical “Rent.” The first locally produced version of the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock opera, the company’s take puts a powerfully intimate spin on the enormously popular Broadway blockbuster.

Performed in the small Church Street Theater (Keegan’s cozy home), the late Larson’s 1996 work easily draws the audience into the extremely personal, quietly heroic stories of its characters, many of whom are dealing with HIV/AIDS. Much of the score works particularly well in this close-up setting including “One Star Glory,” a paean to immortality sung by Roger (Juan Carlos Sanchez), a hot wannabe rock star, as well as bigger company numbers like “Seasons of Love.”

Based on Puccini’s opera “La bohème,” “Rent” is the tale of young artists struggling to create and get by in New York’s East Village in the early 1990s. It’s told from the point of view of Mark (John Loughney), an idealistic documentary filmmaker, and bears witness to his community’s courage and optimism in the face of encroaching gentrification and, more frighteningly, AIDS.

Among the musical’s tight core of artists and activists is a pair of refreshingly non-cookie cutter same-sex couples — power dyke JoAnne (Katie McManus) and her bisexual performance artist partner Maureen (Weslie Woodley), as well as Angel (Parker Drown), a drum-playing drag queen, and black nonconformist professor and activist Collins (the beautifully voiced Michael Robinson). In addition to dealing with the stresses they encounter as lovers, all four are members of the larger group fighting for their community’s greater good.

While the cast is diverse, three of the principle roles in Keegan’s “Rent” have been noticeably whitewashed:  traditionally Mimi and Angel are played by Latino actors and JoAnne is black. The change saps the show of a little spice and strength, but isn’t cataclysmic. As JoAnne, McManus can belt (“Take Me or Leave Me”). Drown’s Angel gives drag act energy to spare (“Today 4 U”). And Emily Levey’s tough-yet-vulnerable Mimi is both well sung (“Light My Candle” and “Out Tonight”) and well acted.

Acoustics aren’t always the greatest at Church Street, but nonetheless the rock band perched behind a scrim at the back of the stage and the talented, fresh-faced young cast sound great throughout the nearly three hour show. Directors Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea have captured the gritty vitality and excitement of the pre-gentrified East Village. George Lucas’ grimy, two-tiered dark metal set is spot on and Kelly Peacock and Shadia Hafiz’s costumes exude an authentic mix of punk and thrift store finds.

And if you still need more reasons to see Keegan Theatre’s “Rent,” there’s this: Throughout the run, the company is partnering with local organizations to promote support for AIDS research and outreach to D.C.-area residents living with HIV.

‘Rent’
Through Jan. 17
Keegan Theatre
1742 Church Street, N.W.
$30 to $40
703-892-0202
www.keegantheatre.com

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