"Rent"

Following a lengthy and healthy 12-year run on Broadway from 1996 to 2008 following its initial New York Theater Workshop engagement Off Broadway, “Rent” has returned mostly intact to Off Broadway. Except for a few stylistic changes, including the imprint of new choreographer Lawrence Keigwin on a more compacted stage and some newly integrated video and graphics, the iconic musical has been once again entrusted to its original director Michael Greif. He unquestionably has attended to the show’s needs with marked discipline as well as with some newly motivated impressions.

The new cast appears younger than the original and performs with the zeal and the drive that earned a rousing reception from the audience at the preview performance I attended. Inspired by the opera “La Boheme,” Larson boldly updated the loves and lives of the artists and bohemians previously immortalized by Puccini. But Larson’s characters are very much of our time.

With only an occasional witty resonance taken from “La Boheme’s” score, Larson affixed his melodic rock score to the torments and delights of a close-knit group of New York’s East Villagers. That these downtown denizens seem just a bit quaint doesn’t detract from our willingness to empathize with characters who were themselves a century removed from the threat of consumption that once ravished the young.

Larson’s music-drama pulsates with an inner-city world gripped by heroin addiction and AIDS. But rather than spinning out its romantics with rhapsodic and bathetic sentimentality, Larson generated a vital, life-affirming pulse in his music and in his story-like lyrics. It is comforting to know that “Rent’s” principal characters are seen and heard as living human beings, not as icons of their place and time.

The new multi-level set design by Mark Wendland is functionally evocative of its locale, purposefully unattractive, and cluttered just enough to warrant our admiration. If Greif’s staging always seemed a bit overly declarative and less distinctive than one might have wished for such a progressive work, it does respect both the compelling dynamics of the score and the story.

You won’t have difficulty recognizing the characters that have been transferred from Puccini’s fin-de-siecle Paris to New York’s Lower East Side. Not to waste time on who is the prototype of whom, let’s just say that the good-looking Matt Shingledecker has a fine voice and is appropriately melancholy as the HIV-infected Roger, the young songwriter who is not coping well following the suicide of his AIDS-afflicted girlfriend. His goal is to complete his one song, “Glory,” before he dies. Adam Chanler-Berat makes a fine impression as Roger’s loft-mate and video artist Mark.

Annaleigh Ashford casts some electrifying sparks as Mark’s ex-girlfriend who has left him for Joanne (a bracing Corbin Reid), a lawyer. As it happens some performers become indelibly associated with a role, so I kept wanting/wishing Arianda Fernandez to sound more like the original Mimi (the incomparable Daphne Rubin-Vega). But once over that block, I’ll admit that Fernandez is persuasive as the HIV-infected Mimi, the junkie and dancer in an S&M club who comes into Roger’s life.

Circulating around them all and redefining the familiar are Ephraim Sykes as the hot-and-cold-running landlord Benjamin Coffin III; Nicholas Christopher as the poet-philosopher Tom; and the outstanding MJ Rodriguez as his HIV-infected drag-queen lover Angel. The effect of the entire ensemble as they resign themselves to their fate singing the philosophical “The Seasons of Love” remains a highlight of the musical and even recalls the poignancy that pervades Puccini’s opera.

The five-piece band conducted by Will Van Dyke is effectively worked into the set. Costume designer Angela Wendt has recreated another collection of colorful, trashy-looking garb. The musical’s new choreographer Keigwin makes his enlivening contributions count at every opportunity. He provides Angel with some terrifically eccentric body moves for the song “4 U” and the “Tango Maureen,” for Chanler-Berat and Reid it is an amusingly sexy divertissement.

The frenetic and callisthenic “Over the Moon” is given a work-over by the dynamic Ashford. That and the unforgettable first act finale “La Vie Boheme” with the entire ensemble reminded me why we all knew at that moment that a classic had been born. The question now is whether it has been reborn.

Addendum: There was plenty of grief and sorrow on January 25, 1996, when the news reached us that 35-year-old Jonathan Larson died of an aortic aneurysm a couple of weeks before the opening of “Rent,” his musical that exalts life even in the wake of death. ***

“Rent,” New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street. $69.50 to $89.50. 212-947-8844.

"Hair"

Last season’s hit revival of “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” has returned to Broadway for what they call “The Summer of Love.” Considering the high spirits and awesome energy being generated by the first national touring company now at the St. James Theater, there is every indication that their recent 20-cities-in-9-months tour only served as a warm-up.

What else is left to say about this groundbreaking musical that first appeared in 1968? A stirring and lauded new staging by director Diane Paulus in Central Park in 2008 gave the Public Theater the encouragement they needed to transfer it to Broadway in 2009, where its new life and new look captured the hearts and minds of a new generation even as it also re-captured the generation that had originally put its hopes and dreams on the power of this musical’s message.

The current company, featuring members of the Central Park tribe, Broadway revival tribe, London revival tribe, and new tribe members, will continue its tour following the limited New York run scheduled to end Saturday, September 10.

It is inevitable that there should also be a sense of sadness within its message of love and peace as it continues to reflect almost the same prevailing government and social policies that sparked its creators. Of course, “Hair” still surges joyously and passionately with anti-establishment sentiments, even if those exemplified and empowered by hippies and “flower children” sound a bit more naive in these times.

Although I have seen both the production in the Park and again on Broadway, I was particularly impressed by the number of young people, actually a sizable majority, in attendance at the performance that I saw. They were not only familiar with the gloriously provocative score by Gerome Ragni & James Rado, but had no qualms about screaming out their pleasure. Remember that these are the songs that essentially validated rock as legitimate theater music over a half century ago.

Despite a few cast changes, the current tribe is continuing its affirmation of peace, love, and its defense of human rights and freedoms. I couldn’t detect any significant changes in the production. The band is still on-stage and sounding just fine perched within set designer’s Scott Pask’s effective environment, one that serves as a perfect showcase for Michael McDonald’s colorful costumes.

Of the major cast changes, the good news is that Steel Burkhardt is dynamic as the acrobatically as well as amorously inclined Berger. Paris Remillard has a terrific voice and is extremely personable as his best friend, Claude. The musical continues to have an emotional pull thanks to Matt DeAngelis as Woof, Darius Nichols (still in his original role) as Hud, Kaitlin Kiyan as Crissy, and Caren Lyn Tackett as Sheila. Tanesha Ross was sensational in the role of Dionne (usually played by Phyre Hawkins) at the performance I saw and got the musical off to a rousing start leading “the tribe” in “Aquarius.”

If I may make two critical points: The first with regard to the famous nude moment that closes Act 1. It could be my imagination, but the original impact made by the entire company disrobing in the shadows is now lost by it being protracted to the point of pandering. What made that moment so explicitly unforgettable was the beauty of the surprise followed by a quick blackout. It was a beautiful moment, and it made a powerful statement. The statement they are making now is almost smug. The second point is that the men’s bodies are all so magnificently sculptured: abs, pecs, and biceps that make you wonder if the characters they are playing spend more time at the athletic club than they do in Central Park.

“Hair” seems to be committed more than ever to involving the audience and getting them worked up from the opening to the finale “Let the Sun Shine In.” An invitation for everyone to get up and dance with the cast onstage results in hundreds making a mad dash down the aisles leaving only a few like me willing to just watch. It is amazing to see how much the spirit of the hippie era still exists in so many of us whether we were there at the time or yet to be born. The constant effusion of love, as expressed in “Hair” through its music and dance, is an experience that I was happy to experience yet again. ***

“Hair,” through Saturday, September 10, St. James Theater, 246 W. 44th Street. $37 to $120. 212-239-6200.

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