I really thought it wouldn't work: raunchy, electrified, rough-edged "Rent" in the cavernous, manicured confines of Wolf Trap? But a blisteringly intense and gifted cast managed to tear up the joint Tuesday night, transforming the barnlike space into the intimate, gloriously grungy downtown setting in which Jonathan Larson's '90s take on "La Boheme" unfolds. And though there were far more neatly dressed, middle-class folk than bohemian types in the crowd--a gaggle of Rentheads, the musical's version of Deadheads, shrieked their heads off throughout--the audience rose to its feet at evening's end to cheer the young and thoroughly nonconformist singer-actors and band members.
A passionate year-in-the-life of an extremely blended "family" of East Villagers holding fast to free art, free love and free expression in the shadow of AIDS, greed and poverty, "Rent" is not exactly "Oklahoma!" Its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink amalgam of rock, calypso, tango, gospel and other musical styles, tangled plot line and matter-of-fact approach to drug use, same-sex relationships, drag queens and S&M demands a most versatile and appealing cast. The Wolf Trap bunch (one of two national touring ensembles; there's also the Broadway crew and a host of international companies) is more than up to these challenges. In fact, their work struck me as far superior to that of the group I saw at the National Theatre two seasons back.
Each cast member bursts forth as an individual thunderbolt; the ensemble as a whole creates a fierce electrical storm. Pierre Angelo Bayuga is a purring, over-the-top delight as the bighearted drag queen Angel. He and Horace V. Rogers, as Angel's gentle, philosophy-spouting lover, Tom Collins, share some of the show's most delicate and vocally affecting moments. Scott Hunt, who resembles a bleached-blond version of the "Where's Waldo" character, plays the documentary filmmaker Mark in merrily manic fashion, darting about the stage, camera always in hand, crooning neurotically and making the most of an improbable tango or angry torrent of words.
Playing Mark's best friend, the HIV-positive wreck-of-a-songwriter Roger, hunky Christian Mena invigorates this bitter whiner with volcanic bursts of musical passion and pain. He meets his match in Julia Santana's sultry Mimi; looking fabulous in her skintight synthetic get-ups, her voice alternately smoky and ragged and her limbs curling sinuously about railings and bodies, she shows us both the hopeful and hopeless sides of her character, an HIV-positive junkie. Stu James turns the rather thankless role of the sellout landlord Benny into something of a lark; there's a breezy, off-the-cuff quality to his work that cancels out some of the character's cardboard villainy.
The best of the best are Danielle Lee Greaves and Cristina Fadale, playing, respectively, Joanne, the control-freak lawyer, and her totally-out-there bombshell of a lover, the performance artist Maureen. This combustible pair, who break up and make up regularly throughout the evening, provide the ultimate showstopper with their rendition of "Take Me or Leave Me," in which they celebrate their differences and mutual pigheadedness in a duet of erotic confrontation. Fadale is also hilarious during her turn as a bargain basement Karen Finley, overflowing with goofy charm and a powerhouse voice.
Though Larson's boundary-smashing characters are portrayed in a sentimental, heart-on-the-sleeve fashion, parents may want to discuss the content with preteens before taking them to the show. And anyone with a sensitivity to visual effects or loud electronic music should be forewarned: Michael Greif's clever, very busy staging includes a blinding light or two, and earplugs might be in order.
Rent. Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Michael Greif. Choreography by Marlies Yearby; set by Paul Clay; costumes by Angela Sendy; lighting by Blake Burba; sound by Steve Canyon Kennedy. With Maggie Benjamin, Matt Caplan, Marcus Chaney, Sandra DeNise, Jake Manabat, Stacey-Lea Marhue, Marcus Mitchell, Racquel Roberts, Enrico Rondriguez, Dominique Roy, Cary Shields, Brent Davin Vance, Maia Nkenge Wilson, Tricia Young. Through Sept. 5 at Wolf Trap. Call 703-218-6500.
CAPTION: Passionate acting makes "Rent": Christian Mena and Julia Santana are full of emotion as HIV-positive characters.