With the possible exception of theater critics, nothing ages faster than avant garde ... as we are reminded with the local professional premiere of the theatrical spectacular Rent, presented by Pittsburgh Musical Theatre.
At the time of its legendary New York opening, in 1996, one of the joys of this reworking of Puccini's La Boheme was how composer and writer Jonathan Larson managed to bring so much of the outside's seedy, downtown artsy world into the show. Fourteen years later, the references now seem dated and quaint: Answering machines? Performance art? People dying from AIDS? How '90s!
That probably sounds bitchier than I mean. In a few more years, Rent will become a museum piece: an indelible snapshot of artists in Manhattan's East Village trying to make it to millennium's end. Larson's score is heavily rock-influenced, featuring a number of stand-out tunes which have become musical-theater standards. While I find his enormous sentimentality at odds with the story, Rent doesn't shy away from life's grittier aspects, and it's hard not to be moved by this show.
The Pittsburgh Musical Theatre production features a first-rate cast of young performers grabbing hold of these songs and lifting them up to the rafters. I've never understood why Larson took his two least interesting characters, Roger and Mimi, and made them the play's center ... but there's no questioning the strong performances of David Toole and Maria Mauti in the roles.
Emily Lynne Miller has a hoot of a time with Maureen's performance-art piece, and her duet with Alysha Watson is a highlight. Brady Patsy and Cory Wade Hindorff make the love story between Collins and Angel real and right. Special mention goes to the ensemble, who sing with great voices and impeccable style.
Peter Matthew Smith, who played in Rent on Broadway, is back in his hometown to direct this production and appear as Mark. Smith was always a great performer, and this is no exception. As a director, he unsurprisingly follows the blueprint of Michael Grief, the original Broadway director, with great fidelity ... and I wish he hadn't. When I saw this show's first national tour, I couldn't believe how bad the direction was -- muddied, aggressively ugly and excessively trite. I'd be more interested in seeing what Smith could do, and less of what Grief had already done.
But that's minor. Rent, and this production of it, are something to celebrate.
Rent continues through Sun., Feb. 7. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. 412-456-6666