Musical theater: It’s so nice to have you back where you belong. That is to say, on the main stage of those show-tune specialists at Signature Theatre, where the attraction is a gloriously harmonious revival of “Rent.”
Here, the romantic couples of Larson’s twist on Puccini’s “La Bohème” — led by the electrifying pairing of Vincent Kempski’s Roger and Arianna Rosario’s Mimi — ensure that the composer-lyricist’s emotion-laden story is fully activated. The other couples — Maureen (Katie Mariko Murray) and Joanne (Ines Nassara), and Tom Collins (Josh A. Dawson) and Angel (David Merino) — movingly and raucously complete the triptych of East Village romance that propels the evening.
Larson’s score, with its virtually endless parade of pinnacle numbers — “One Song Glory,” “Out Tonight,” “Santa Fe,” “Seasons of Love,” “La Vie Boheme” and on and on — provides a grand welcome-back mat for theatergoers. Gardiner and music director Mark G. Meadows have expertly assembled and drilled a cast with the vocal chops for the occasion. And they navigate with exceptional aptitude some of the trickiest interludes in Larson’s book: Murray, for instance, conquers the challenging performance-art song “Over the Moon” with an infectious verve and comic savvy that elude many other interpreters. Brava.
The big caveat is in the audibility department: Those intimately familiar with the lyrics will have a more rewarding experience than those who aren’t. Conductor Angie Benson’s band of guitars, keyboards, bass and drums — situated in and above the stage — drowns out some of the singers. It’s a familiar rock-musical dilemma, and it’s, er, amplified in the rather limited confines of a 270-seat black-box space. A case in point is the boisterous title-song opener, which at the moment is 95 percent energy and 5 percent clarity.
Choreographer Rickey Tripp, who has devised some apt movement elsewhere in the show, here contributes a rather manic dancescape that scrambles rather than unifies the story elements. Maybe everyone could put their heads together with sound designer Ryan Hickey and make some adjustments? Some listeners would be grateful.
Thankful is how I felt for much of the evening among my fellow masked and vaccinated theatergoers. My history with “Rent” is deep and long. I was there at the birth at New York Theatre Workshop on East Fourth Street in 1996; interviewed the entire original cast; followed it uptown to Broadway; and reported on Larson’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize. It became a family affair, as a gateway musical-theater drug for my daughter, Lizzie. The show’s depictions of drug use and frank sexuality — toned down a bit at Signature — did not deter me from taking her. “Rent’s” generosity of spirit and abundance of musicality made it seem an absolutely safe space.
So for me, it occupies a profoundly meaningful perch in the pantheon. I dare say that some of the actors in Gardiner’s production were in cribs when “Rent” premiered; as a result, the poignant references to AIDS and terminal illness may feel like history to them. That shows, a bit, in the overall picture of health this cast communicates. Some sense of dissipation has been lost. Some of Erik Teague’s costumes — especially the lavish outfits for Merino’s splendidly benevolent Angel — are gorgeous, even if they don’t always feel entirely true to the hand-me-down bohemian style of the East Village in the early ’90s. (But, yes, at long last, Teague gets to retire that totemic scarf eternally wrapped around the neck of the nerdy filmmaker Mark Cohen, here embodied with affecting passion by Jake Loewenthal.)
Gardiner, though, approaches “Rent” with such inventive elan that the production stands as a joyous opening act for his own leadership run — and reinforces the notion honed over his many years of directing at Signature that he’s an outstanding steward of the American musical. He has gratifyingly rethought the beloved top-of-second-act song, “Seasons of Love,” usually staged with the cast in a single line across a proscenium stage. To accommodate in-the-round, the actors sit and stand all over the central platform. The effect is warmer and more immersive, the song more enveloping.
An immersion in Larson’s melodies — whether this is your first “Rent” or your 20th — remains the main event and the reason that after a quarter-century, the piece is still a vital document. There is so much to savor here: Dawson’s Tom Collins, delivering a eulogizing “I’ll Cover You”; Kempski’s Roger, looking like a latter-day Kurt Cobain and belting a powerhouse “One Song Glory”; Nassara’s Joanne and Murray’s Maureen, teaming up for the gnarly lovers’ duet of “Take Me or Leave Me.” Did I mention Merino’s Angel, nailing the ebullient “Today 4 U”?
“Connection in an isolating age,” goes the lyric sung near evening’s end by Loewenthal’s Mark and Kempski’s Roger, in yet another great song, “What You Own.” There you have Larson’s triumph in a single line. An isolating age is forever with us, it seems. And “Rent” forever helps us make an unforgettable connection.
Rent, book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Choreography, Rickey Tripp; music direction, Mark G. Meadows; set, Paige Hathaway; costumes, Erik Teague; lighting, Adam Honoré; sound, Ryan Hickey. With Da’Von Moody, Adelina Mitchell, Jimmy Mavrikes, Solomon Parker III, Kaiyla Gross, Devin Bowles, Usman Ali Ishaq and Imani Branch. About 2 hours 45 minutes. $66-$108. Through Jan. 2 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. sigtheatre.org.