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Energy, heart, talent drive local staging of 'Rent'

"Rent" is a lively urban potpourri of issues and emotions, humor and grief, friendship and love and disappointment, all wrapped up in music and dance. It's a big, complicated show, with a large cast that has to negotiate the complexities of life with energy and sensitivity.

In short, "Rent" is not an easy play to get right. That's why kudos must go to first-time director John Fraser and the others who staged the local production now rocking the Sydney Laurence Theatre at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. Their "Rent" isn't perfect, but it's perfectly enjoyable.

At Sunday evening's performance, a three-quarters house gave the show an enthusiastic reception, and justly so.

In the late Jonathan Larson's rock-opera updating of the opera "La Boheme," on a spare set with tables, scaffolding and projections on a screen, Puccini's Parisian bohemians of the 1800s become the aspiring artists and shabby street people of Greenwich Village at the end of the millennium, and AIDS supplants tuberculosis as the plague that kills.

Mark (Anthony Lounsbury), an aspiring documentary filmmaker, rooms with Roger (Leo Grinberg), a rocker who's been a recluse since losing his girlfriend, gaining AIDS and going through rehab. Roger becomes involved with Mimi (Regina Catherine MacDonald), an exotic dancer who carries at least as much baggage as he does. Roger and Mark's old friend Tom Collins (Mark Robokoff), who teaches at MIT, falls in love with the warm, empathetic, cross-dressing Angel (Jose Florez Isaza). And Mark's ex-girlfriend, performance artist Maureen (Danielle Rabinovitch), has left him for Joanne (co-producer Shelly Wozniak), a lawyer who is being driven insecure by Maureen's demands and less-than-faithful behavior.

Into the situation comes former roommate Benny (Patrick Killoran), who has married rich, bought the building where they live and wants to tear down the homeless camp next door.

Through the play's 2 1/2 hours, allegiances are formed and hearts broken, and relationships shift, wither and grow over the span of a year from Christmas to Christmas.

The Anchorage production, a joint presentation of Alaska Theatre of Youth and Theatre Artists United, is generally strong in the all-important vocal category. Grinberg on Sunday displayed a powerful, evocative voice that could raise mountains, or raze them. Lounsbury's well-honed acting chops were in play, as well as a fine singing ability. Their voices melded especially well in their duets "Rent" and "What You Own."

Wozniak's clear voice rang like a church bell, and Rabinovitch threw her all into Maureen's weirdly funny performance piece "Over the Moon" (although one might question why somebody who's performing outdoors in late December would be wearing Daisy Duke shorts and a midriff-baring shirt).

MacDonald, however, didn't seem to connect with Mimi's bad-girl-looking-for-a-good-time anthem "Out Tonight," although her solo in the plaintive "Without You" was haunting.

The Sydney Laurence isn't always a friendly space, and it can swallow voices. The small musical ensemble of "Rent," situated onstage far to the side, sometimes overpowered the singers. And individual lines in group numbers became muddied. However, all the voices in the anthem "Seasons of Love," which opens Act 2, were clear and beautiful.

In general, the production's shortcomings aren't deal-breakers. The show has color, energy, heart and a talented cast that makes the chaotic, confused seekers in "Rent" very much worth visiting.

Linda Billington is a copy editor and former arts editor at the Daily News.


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