'Rent' rocks with powerful hope, spirit

You know a musical is beloved when the pre-show announcements include a plea not to sing along with the actors. That's the case with "Rent," a show that first took Broadway by storm 15 years ago. Now playing in a jubilant, heartfelt production by Theatre Charlotte, this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama retains its relevancy and power today.

When it opened off Broadway in early 1996, its real-life creation story threatened to overwhelm the musical itself. Jonathan Larson, the 35-year-old composer and librettist, died of an aortic aneurysm on the night of its final dress rehearsal.

Written as an East Village rock version of Puccini's "La Boheme," "Rent" opened on Broadway in April 1996 and went on to win four Tony awards, including best musical. Director Billy Ensley writes in his director's note that he wants to simultaneously honor and rejuvenate the show.

The impassioned performances and vibrant singing filling Theatre Charlotte bring Ensley's vision to pulse-pounding life. Chaz Pofahl, as the narrator and filmmaker Mark, skillfully conveys humor and idealism. He hides behind his camera and screens calls from his mother in Scarsdale, all while dreaming of glory without selling out.

As the cloistered Roger, Mark's musician roommate, Joe McCourt shows a man in conflict with his past, paralyzed in the present, unsure of the future. From the first meeting of Roger and dancer Mimi (Meghan Whitney) to their final embrace, the actors make us feel the romantic tragedy and rhapsodic hope that permeate Larson's rock opera.

Soulful Collins (Calvin Grant, reprising his Broadway role) and buoyant Angel (Charlton Alicea) generate similar pathos in their affecting and tender relationship. Grant has a deep baritone, and his "I'll Cover You: Reprise" is one of the most poignant moments in the show.

As the performance artist (and Mark's ex-girlfriend) Maureen, Karen Christensen brings down the house with her solo, "Over the Moon." Her new lover, Joanne (Meredith Owen), has a funny and eye-opening turn with Mark in their duet, "Tango: Maureen," as the two trade war stories of being her significant other. We see how well matched Joanne and Maureen are when they go toe to toe in a knock-down-drag-out lover's spat, "Take Me or Leave Me."

The ensemble numbers are exceptional, especially "Seasons of Love," the musical's best-known anthem, and "La Vie Boheme," the challenging Act I closer. Both sound spectacular and are infused with propulsive rhythm by choreographer Eddie Mabry.

Special mention should be given to the superb musicians, directed by Ryan Deal, who are on stage for the entire production. A remarkable set, by Chris Timmons, is a miracle of space efficiency as it shifts from industrial loft to graffiti-filled Alphabet City. Costumes, by Jamey Varnadore, are gritty and bohemian.

Ultimately, the musical has endured because of its themes of community, making your own family from friends and living every day as if it were your last. There is "no day but today" to experience the powerful humanity of Theatre Charlotte's "Rent."