A 20th anniversary tour of “Rent’’? Really? That sure went fast. For a musical, 20 is middle age.
But here, indeed, at the Shubert Theatre, is Jonathan Larson’s rock ’n’ roll reworking of Puccini’s “La Boheme,’’ the eighth(!) time a touring production of “Rent’’ has been presented in our fair city.
Like “Hair’’ before it and “American Idiot’’ after, “Rent’’ stands as proof that even the most perfervid yawp of youthful rebellion can eventually be tamed and commercialized by the power of marketing.
Not that “Rent’’ has lowered its voice any. The dynamic production at the Shubert — directed by Evan Ensign and choreographed by Marlies Yearby — pulses with insurrectionary energy as it takes us through a year in the lives of young friends and lovers in New York’s East Village at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
They are death-haunted and life-seeking at once, mired in despair one moment and fiercely embracing joy the next — an ongoing paradox beautifully captured by the talented cast of this “Rent.’’ Larson’s characters struggle with their health, relationships, drug dependency, and, not least, their individual expectations for themselves. Dwelling cheek-by-jowl with homeless people, they try to keep the flames of creativity burning as they are drawn into a battle against the forces of gentrification that are seeking to transform their neighborhood.
Subtlety has never been a strong suit of “Rent.’’ A certain callowness pervades the us-against-them story line, Larson’s lyrics are often much too on-the-nose, and the declamatory style of the opera that inspired the musical is very much in evidence throughout. But for all that, “Rent’’ still has the power to sweep you up in its atmosphere of swoony romanticism.
The show has been swaddled in myth since it debuted in 1996 — making “Rent’’ 21 now, not 20; this anniversary tour began last year — and it was a premiere punctuated by tragedy. After toiling for years to create “Rent,’’ Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at 35, just before the show was scheduled to open off-Broadway.
For “Rent’s’’ many fans — they call themselves “Rentheads,’’ and they were out in force at the Shubert opening Tuesday night, whooping enthusiastically — the backstory of its creator’s premature death has added a meta layer to some of the show’s most beloved songs, including “Seasons of Love’’ (“How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?’’); “One Song Glory’’ (“One song glory, one song before I go/Glory, one song to leave behind’’); and “Life Support’’ (“Forget regret or life is yours to miss . . . No day but today.’’)
For “Rent’’ to succeed, that “No day but today’’ credo must be palpable onstage, and it is in this non-Equity touring production, featuring young actors who are in many cases making their national touring debuts, and who bring an all-or-nothing urgency to their performances.
The narrator of “Rent’’ is its least interesting character, Mark Cohen (Danny Harris Kornfeld), an aspiring documentary filmmaker whose roommate Roger (Kaleb Wells) is a guitar-strumming songwriter who is HIV-positive. Into Roger’s life barrels Mimi (Skyler Volpe), an exotic dancer and drug addict who is also HIV-positive. Volpe and Wells generate an erotic charge in their getting-to-know-you duet, “Light My Candle,’’ and Volpe is positively volcanic in “Out Tonight.’’
Along with other tenants of their apartment building, Mark and Roger are being threatened with eviction by Benny (Christian Thompson), their former roommate and the show’s designated sellout, who plans to turn the building into a “cyber-arts studio.’’ Mark’s ex-lover, a flamboyant performance artist named Maureen (Katie LaMark), is preparing a Christmas Eve protest of Benny’s plan, with the help of her down-to-earth new lover, Joanne (Jasmine Easler). LaMark manages to both spoof and celebrate performance art in “Over the Moon,’’ and she and Easler nail their duet, “Take Me or Leave Me.’’
Meanwhile, the drag queen and percussionist Angel (David Merino) has embarked on a tender love affair with the professor Tom Collins (Aaron Harrington). Merino shines in a rip-roaring “Today 4 U,’’ and the rendition of “I’ll Cover You’’ by him and Harrington is a thing of beauty.
Book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Evan Ensign, based on original direction by Michael Greif. Presented by Boch Center at Shubert Theatre, Boston, through April 23. Tickets: Starting at $55, 866-348-9738, www.bochcenter.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.