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Desert Stages' Rent a Heartfelt but Shopworn Production

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Desert Stages Theatre's production of Rent never stops moving. The relentless, often abrasive energy that fuels Jonathan Larson's musical also holds it aloft in this umpteenth restaging, which may be the brightest adult entertainment July has to offer. Yet in spite of all this frenetic motion, Rent — co-directed by Tim Shawver and DST artistic director Terry Helland — never fully ignites.

This may be because Rent is beginning to look a little shopworn. As theatergoers of a certain age forget our anger at a world where young people were dying of AIDS while our government looked on, Larson's tuneful polemic packs less of a punch. The show's younger audience, raised on Rent's evocative rock songbook, is probably roused more by its catchy musical hooks than its yesteryear message.

A more fully realized production of Rent can still pack a punch, and this one comes close, with several heartfelt performances and the rowdy musical curtain of Mark 4man's live rock band as a superb backdrop. Alexandra Ncube gives a nicely shaded performance as Mimi, capturing both her childlike joy and the ageing vulnerability of a drug addict. Sean Mullaney is perfectly cast as a frustrated young rock musician whose talent is overcome by a youthful inability to sort out his own personal problems. Damon J. Bolling brings a reformer's zeal to his forceful portrait of Tom Collins. And Lucas Coatney makes doomed Angel his own, never once dipping into camp or drag queen shtick to gain our laughs or our affection.


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But several of the performances play like pale copies of the originals, a hazard of any iconic musical whose cast probably is made up of fans of the show. Sam E. Wilkes is an especially weak link as the angry young filmmaker and defacto narrator of Larson's story; his too-compassionate performance never offers the ire that the young artiste Mark Cohen is there to convey. And the ensemble choreography blazes no new trails, working best when the chorus eschews synchronized dance moves for hanging from the rafters, pumping fists, and hollering down at us.

The directors make the most of the tumbledown theater-in-the-round room in which they've staged this gritty story — which, after all, takes place in bombed-out Manhattan warehouses and vacant lots — with crowds spilling out from every corner in Tamara Treat's carefully distressed costumes. And if Rent is by now iconic, its own theater brand of sorts, it's still provocative enough to occasionally engender anger with numbers like the heart-wrenching "I'll Cover You" or get our toes tapping to the familiar strains of "Seasons of Love." The result of Desert Stages' estimable efforts is an occasionally engaging Rent played by and for Rent fans, but not necessarily for a discerning musical theater audience.

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