It's awe-inspiring and almost unbelievable what the new production of Rent at the 5th Avenue Theater pulls off. Here is a musical so of its time that entire threads of the plot are distinctly dated. It's set in the early 1990s, and four of the principal characters are about to die of AIDS (two are gay men, two are heterosexual drug users). At the risk of sounding insensitive, these four have been just about to die of AIDS, and singing about being just about to die of AIDS, for nearly 20 years. They are like bugs trapped in amber, and since the disease they are dying from is no longer the death sentence it was, at least in America, the material has been drained of real-world urgency. Related problem: Like many people on their way to death, the characters express themselves very earnestly, but earnestness veers very easily into cloyingness, which gives Rent a whiff of cheesiness. The director Chris Columbus, who never met a hunk of cheddar he didn't love, made a 2005 film adaptation of Rent so cheesy and cringe-making I can't believe I just wasted a whole sentence on it.
But this production? This production is something else. It's inventive, it's wrenching, it's gorgeously sung, it's dirty in ways you don't expect, and it's teeming with new signs of life. The original staging on Broadway was so iconic and worked so well that redoing any of it takes guts. Director Bill Berry has guts: He stages half a dozen scenes in imaginative new ways, with a set designed by Martin Christoffel, and the effect is to pull characters into darker, more revealing dramatic moments than fans of the show have seen before. I saw the show in the late '90s in Los Angeles (with Neil Patrick Harris!!) and later in New York City and some time after that in Seattle (a touring production a few years ago), and never before have I seen Mimi shoot up onstage. And yet... why not? Mimi shooting up during the falsetto howling of "Out Tonight" propels the story forward (and explains the falsetto howling, and sets us up for her second-act overdose) better than Mimi doing light acrobatics down a metal staircase in baby-blue vinyl shorts, like she's done in every other production. There are no baby-blue vinyl shorts in this show, either: Costume designer Pete Rush gives the show a reimagined wardrobe.
And going in a different direction with the racial makeup of the characters means that supremely talented up-and-coming Seattle performers get to embody these characters, even though they don't look exactly like you remember the characters looking. Jerick Hoffer, known around town for his drag alter ego Jinkx Monsoon, brings his strange and hilarious mix of masculine and feminine vocal registers, his unerring sense for physical comedy, and his blinding white complexion to the role of Angel, traditionally played by a Latino. He glows. Likewise, Brandon O'Neill, playing Angel's lover, is not a black man like usual, but he doesn't need to be—and his chemistry with Hoffer is so sparky that by the time one of them is grieving the death of the other, the whole house is sobbing. (Or at least I was.) Aaron C. Finley (as Roger) just blows your face off with his singing, and Naomi Morgan (as Mimi) is no slouch, either.
Not casting a bunch of out-of-towners was a stroke of genius, because Rent's prevailing theme is the intimacy and intensity of urban life, where freaks and weirdos and DIY artists scratch out compelling alternatives to mainstream culture—and where an authentic close-quarters community can transcend the meager circumstances of the day to day. This is Seattle's very own tight-knit community of artists up there. That's why this Rent feels so authentic, transcendent, and sublime.