Keegan Theatre hits the stage in Jonathan Larson's 'Rent'
"And it's beginning to snow," goes one of the infectious refrains of Jonathan Larson's "Rent," and that chorus midway through the first act is when the Keegan Theatre's show -- the area's first locally produced professional production of the Broadway smash that closed last year -- turns seriously convincing. Strong, controlled voices rise from every corner of the Church Street Theater's brick-walled stage, and it's clear that co-directors Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea (the married couple that runs the Keegan) have done their casting well.
Their "Rent," which runs through Jan. 17, isn't perfect. The musical staging can be a trifle stiff, and the rock band tucked at the back of the stage sometimes sounds like it's still calibrating exactly how to shimmer and throttle in this intimate space. Also, purists should be advised that roles traditionally played by performers of color -- namely Angel, Mimi and JoAnne -- are here embodied by white actors.
Just know also that they can sing it. As Angel, the cross-dressing street percussionist, Parker Drown pretty much holds his own in a demanding role that asks for the flamboyance of Prince. And the ladies deliver with knockout force: Emily Levey is as vocally sure a Mimi as I've heard, whether howling "Out Tonight" or purring "Light My Candle" and "Without You." Katie McManus is as impressive as JoAnne, belting "Take Me or Leave Me" with a ferocity that seems to toughen up Weslie Woodley's Maureen. (Woodley's a mite too sweet as the feisty performance artist until she picks up a little edge in the second act.)
Not everyone's that dynamic, but nearly all the performers are likable and surprisingly capable. As Mark, the guilt-riddled documentarian who's chronicling New York's Alphabet City scene in the age of AIDS, John Loughney is perhaps more well-adjusted than you'd expect, and Juan Carlos Sanchez only gradually finds enough fire to make a persuasive Roger (Mark's angsty rocker roommate). Sanchez duets especially well, both with Loughney in "What You Own" and with Levey during "Without You."
Softer notes are provided by Michael Robinson as Collins, the disaffected intellectual who croons the dreamy "Santa Fe" in a light, deep voice that brings out the carefree warmth of the tune. (Casting is destiny in musicals, so hats off again to the directors.)
While it's possible that some people have grown sick of "Rent," it's clearly not going away; if four people can play the music and 17 more can sing it, you're in business. And with this hungry troupe generally making good on the heartbreak and uplift Larson hardwired into his score, the show sounds as vital as ever.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea. Set, George Lucas; costumes, Kelly Peacock, and Shadia Hafiz; sound director, Eamon Coy; video, Rich Montgomery. With MaryLee Adams, Shayna Blass, Mickey Daguiso, Edward Daniels, Julia Fanning, Nick Lehan, Christopher Mueller, Carolyn Myers, Christina Sanchez, and Dan Van Why. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Jan. 17 at the Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. Call 703-892-0202 or visit http:/