In the late ‘90s, I was a RENT-head. I had a shirt that said “No Day But Today” across the back. I sang “Take Me or Leave Me,” musical theater’s most combative love song, at karaoke. I knew every word of that rapid-fire rap at the end of “La Vie Bohème.” (Still do.)
So long before the opening licks of the title track on Tuesday in Overture Hall, I’m ready with a snarky comment about Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, the show’s original and current leads. Aren’t they getting a bit elderly for their youthful roles?
I’m eating the words I never wrote. Rapp and Pascal are electric as ever, sparking with chemistry and howling harmonies to the upper balcony. Pascal’s gravelly, rock-star tenor has, if anything, improved with age. Rapp is still the hapless Charlie Brown, his slightly nasal tone almost cracking with endearing geekiness.
They’re backed by an attractive, spirited cast, some culled from the recent Broadway production, all talented performers. Watching them, I feel joy hearing the familiar score and relief that, in the hands of music director David Truskinoff, it still sounds so explosive.
For newbies, “Rent” isn’t the easiest story to follow. Loosely based on Puccini’s opera “La Bohème,” composer Jonathan Larson’s 1993 update places a half dozen “bohemian” artists in New York City, where poverty, AIDS and addiction take the life-threatening place of tuberculosis.
In the East Village, Mark is trying to make a film, HIV-positive Roger wants to write “one great song” and Maureen is looking for fame. Relationships fuse and falter as a year passes.
As catlike, flirtatious Mimi, long-limbed Lexi Lawson lacks the expected frenetic edge in “Out Tonight.” But she warms up on “Without You,” which sounds like a plea for human connection as well as Roger’s love, and she blends nicely with Pascal on their duets.
Nicolette Hart is playful and crude as Maureen, making lascivious gestures and turning her performance piece, “Over the Moon,” into a silly spectacle. Hart and the excellent Merle Dandridge as Joanne threaten to bring the house down with their smokin’ rendition of “Take Me or Leave Me.” (I may never attempt it at karaoke again.)
The pleasant surprise of the tour is Michael McElroy as Tom Collins, the itinerant professor (McElroy also played the role on Broadway). Opening a restaurant in “Santa Fe” sounds especially sweet coming from his toasty, versatile baritone, and his love duet with Angel (cute, cocky Justin Johnston), “I’ll Cover You,” sparkles with well-placed ornamentation.
And what a thrill to hear original Broadway cast member Gwen Stewart bust out her famous high note on “Seasons of Love,” the show’s most popular track. She could probably sing the phone book and make it sound like a gospel anthem.
Many of Broadway director Michael Grief’s choices remain here, with minor tweaks. As Angel, Johnston is a better dancer than a percussionist, which changes his “Today 4 U” solo into a high-kicking, butt-shaking display.
Even almost 15 years after debuting on Broadway “Rent” still has to muscle through a few plot bumps. “I Should Tell You,” Roger and Mimi’s love duet, breaks up the joyful drive of “La Vie Bohème,” and the overt sexuality of “Contact” feels gratuitous. It’s not shocking anymore.
But “Rent” is Larson’s love song to New York, and to humanity, in all its dirty, cruel, fragile beauty. As brought to life in the Overture Center, it’s a musical valentine to “anyone alive,” “anyone out of the mainstream” — anyone at all.
IF YOU GO
What: “Rent: The Broadway Tour”
Where: Overture Hall, Overture Center
When: Through Jan. 31
Info: overturecenter.com; 258-4141