Before dying of an aortic aneurysm last January at age 35, composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson accomplished a musical mission impossible: His searing, soaring rock-opera update of Puccini’s La Boheme manages to hit traditional musical tones without ever slipping into the happy glibness that modern audiences identify with camp. Like its grandfather, Oklahoma!, Rent affirms life on its denizens’ terms — though the denizens in this case are a bunch of young East Villagers facing displacement, drug addiction, and AIDS. Rent‘s lovely, middle-of-the-road score is no edgier or more advanced than 1967’s Hair or 1993’s Tommy. But the show deserves its accolades for being ”groundbreaking”: Broadway hasn’t seen anything so heartfelt, so stirring, so now in quite some time.
The HIV-positive Mimi (the delectable Daphne Rubin-Vega) is a swirl of pathos and pluck. The rest of the ensemble (including Tony winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia) create as magic a combination as the legendary original casts of A Chorus Line and Company. Unfortunately, the rigors of eight hard-hitting shows a week and recording an album of the play’s anthems (due in August) have stretched the cast’s vocal cords. But maybe that’s a small price to pay for a rash of Tonys, a Pulitzer, and — their moms will like this — an A+.