The words were whispered to me in the dark. "Dad, what's in the bag?"

A packet of white powder had just passed from one actor to another on the stage of the Warner Theatre, where "Rent" is playing this week. I froze. Surely, Lizzie, my 10-year-old, had seen a transaction of this sort acted out on television before. But maybe not. My heart sank. I'd forgotten that this scene takes place. Was this dramatization a good setting for her first exposure to a dangerous enticement? Would she now forever associate the substance in the plastic bag with beautiful music?

As a parent, you can get a little nuts about this sort of thing. At least I had not brought along a friend of hers. ("Mommy, guess what? Lizzie's dad taught me all about heroin!")

I considered evasion. Then I leaned over and whispered: "It's drugs."

No reaction. It was enough information, apparently. Still, I was a little unsettled. I'd brought Lizzie to "Rent" because it was a score she had fallen in love with, and I'm eager to encourage her theatergoing habit. Having seen the show several times, I knew there were strong doses of profanity (it's all on the CD), and that the subject at hand -- young romance in the age of AIDS -- was a lot more adult than the Hogwarts-and-Nintendo-obsessed universe that she normally inhabits.

Actually, "Rent's" convoluted plot, a challenge even to breakers of the Enigma code, was my ally. Though Lizzie knew all the heart-pounding songs, Michael Greif's messy staging of the Jonathan Larson rock opera, as muddled here as in the off-Broadway original, was such a distraction that she didn't have time to dwell on the story's seamier side. She managed to float all evening on the potent pleasures of Larson's moving score, a rock-and-roll retelling of "La Boheme," and on the show's humane and ultimately sentimental view of the world.

This is "Rent's" fourth visit to Washington; earlier touring versions have played at Wolf Trap and the National Theatre. It's a nonunion production, meaning the performers and stage manager are not members of Equity, the actors' union. Typically, non-Equity shows pay actors considerably less, the performers tend to have thinner re{acute}sume{acute}s, and the productions often, shall we say, stink.

The "Rent" that has rolled into the Warner -- after a week here, it travels to the famous theater town of Sioux Falls, S.D. -- does not stink. It's sloppy at times, the harmonies in buoyant numbers like "Seasons of Love" go irritatingly sharp, the comic moments get swallowed, and the dancing is generally sub-par. (One of the actors was completely winded after a not very taxing tango number.) At times the production gives off the whiff of a Triple-A ball club: "Rent: The Farm Team."

And yet this "Rent" is undeniably touching. In its effort to distill the bohemian essence of Manhattan's Alphabet City, the musical requires a raw kind of energy. If it's slick, "Rent" becomes emblematic of the theme park culture it is supposed to be rebelling against. There's no danger of that in this production. Many of the actors commit themselves passionately, and a few exhibit a level of skill that will continue to serve them well. Krystal L. Washington, for instance, is a sleek and alluring Mimi, the HIV-infected hellcat who bewitches Roger (Kevin Spencer), a blocked songwriter. Her polished and sinewy rendition of the show-stopping "Out Tonight," which she sings in a hot spotlight while straddling a railing, does the song gymnastic justice.

Caissie Levy's Maureen is a winning portrayal, too, particularly in her signature number, "Over the Moon," a parody of performance art that culminates in her request that the audience moo with her. (The intensity of the mooing in the hall suggested a healthy turnout by bona fide "Rent"-heads.) As Benny, the yuppie turncoat who seeks to have Roger and Mark (Guy Olivieri) evicted from an Avenue B walk-up, Matthew S. Morgan gets the character's slithering zeal just right.

Several of the other performances seem embryonic: Bridget Anne Mohammed's Joanne, while well voiced, lacks the sexual bite needed for the lesbian duet "Take Me or Leave Me"; Justin Rodriguez's Angel is a sweet if tentative creation, and as the story's two pivotal cogs, Spencer and Olivieri have not yet developed the kind of rapport that can make the show's resolution so affecting.

Lizzie, though fading a bit as the evening wore on, seemed happy to be able to add such vigorous flesh and blood to the aural appreciation she had long nurtured. After we left the theater, I asked her about the drugs; she appeared to accept them for what they were, important to the plot, not to her. I asked her what grade she'd give the show. She said an A. Another "Rent"-head is born.

Rent. Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Michael Greif. Sets, Paul Clay; costumes, Angela Wendt; lighting, Blake Burba; sound design, Steve C. Kennedy; musical director, David Pepin. With Bruce Wilson Jr., Rebecca A. Pace, Earl R. Perkins Jr., Sahirah Johnson, Delante McCreary, Jasmine Jonas, Brian Ashton Miller, DJ Gregory. Approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Sunday at Warner Theatre, 13th Street between E and F streets NW. Call 202-432-7328 or visit

Bruce Wilson, Justin Rodriguez, Kevin Spencer and Krystal L. Washington, from left, in "Rent."