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On The Town: Rent

When Rent premiered off-Broadway in 1996, it was still possible to find an apartment in the East Village that might not break the bank. There was just the faintest glimpse of hope in the HIV drug development pipeline that would eventually pump out protease inhibitors that changed the narrative arc of the AIDS epidemic. And Rent felt like a revolution, an unapologetic, raucous rock musical about queers and junkies doing their best to survive in a cruel world.

After 12 years ruling the Great White Way and winning every award for which it was eligible, the show finally closed -- but a touring production currently making its way cross country reunites a majority of the original cast for one last curtain call. There are still day-of cheap tickets for the struggling artists and students among us, impassioned pitches by cast post-show for donations to charitable organizations -- but now the tour also has a Twitter and, for real this time, an expiration date.

The show still stands out, all this time later. Anthony Rapp, who just turned 38, is the rare actor who can make a matinee more than a decade in the making feel like Mark's opening night. (The stage is far kinder to the older cast members than the 2005 film was.) The strength is still Jonathan Larson's songs and the many returning cast members' performances, including Adam Pascal as Roger. I dare you to find a show with more back-to-back stunning duets not penned by Sondheim. Sure, it's a history piece in places -- not because AIDS is any less a threat now but because the urgency and grief captured so poignantly in the play might as well be a newsreel. But whether it feels contemporary or not, the sheer intensity of the story -- which after all takes its cues from a far more out of date production, La Boheme -- still packs one hell of an emotional punch.

Rent's eventual retirement -- once it finishes its run this winter -- begs an obvious question: Who shall inherit the crown? One show likely to strike a similar chord among young theatergoers is American Idiot, the rock opera adaptation of Green Day's music by Spring Awakening director Michael Mayer. Developed in a similar homegrown, energetic manner at the Berkeley Reperatory Theater, it's expected to move to Broadway in 2010. The staging takes Rent's stripped down vertical construction to a heightened, multi-media level -- but its scenes with lost, confused young men searching for redemption as they sing into each other's faces feel like a tribute of its own to Mark and Roger.

For more info on rent including a full list of tour dates, head to the show's official website.


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Noah Michelson