The late Jonathan Larson's once-hip 1996 rock musical "Rent" is a period piece of sorts. The graffiti-tagged Lower East Side neighborhoods haunted by the show's early-1990s bohemian artists have long since gentrified, while their death-sentence view of HIV/AIDS might be mitigated today by life-extending medications that came onto the market later that decade.
That doesn't mean, however, that Paramount Theatre's passionate and gritty production in Aurora is old hat, or that the issues don't still resonate. Despite the show's Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning pedigree and its plot roots drawn from Puccini's 1896 opera "La bohème," "Rent" maintains its edge -- and can alienate more conservative audiences with its interwoven relationships of struggling artists, gay and straight.
"Rent"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, (630) 896-6666 or paramountaurora.com
Showtimes: 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday; through April 6.
Running time: About two hours and 40 minutes with intermission
Parking: Metered street parking and nearby pay garages
Rating: For mature audiences: profanity, drug references, sexual situations, brief nudity
But Paramount's gamble on "Rent" pays off artistically with another Broadway-caliber production that feels exuberantly alive and fresh.
Director Jim Corti and his production team aren't slavishly beholden to the look or casting types of the original Broadway run. In fact, Corti and choreographer Katie Spelman's production often offers more clarity than the original 1996 "Rent" staging.
Paramount's "Rent" benefits enormously from vocally adept cast members who can toss off pop melismas and dig deep down to their guts for anguished rock howls like there's no tomorrow. I was also pleasantly surprised that the Paramount cast placed more emphasis on articulating their lyrics than in past "Rent" productions I've seen (also a credit to sound designer Adam Rosenthal).
At times, however, some of the romantic couplings feel unbalanced. As the drug-addled dancer Mimi, Adaeze' Kelley is so fit and capable that she overshadows the mopey ex-junkie musician Roger of Adam Michaels. The same goes for the powerful Meghan Murphy as the no-nonsense lesbian attorney Joanne, who all but steam-rolls over Andrea Prestinario as the pretentious and promiscuous bisexual performance artist Maureen.
More evenly matched are Sawyer Smith and Evan Tyrone Martin respectively as the fierce drag queen Angel and his thoughtful academic lover Tom Collins (both great in the duet and sad reprise of "I'll Cover You"), while Kelvin Roston Jr. thankfully doesn't make landlord Benny too much into a moustache-twirling bad guy.
Observing it all is the fine Andrew M. Mueller as indie filmmaker Mark, whose end-of-show movie looks more like a touching AIDS documentary than self-indulgent footage in other productions.
While the love lives of "Rent's" characters will always be more interesting than the actual art they produce, their youthful ardor can be inspiring. Paramount Theatre's solid production is a reminder of why "Rent" still has the power to touch so many hearts.