Bristol Riverside Theatre's current production of Rent marks the fifth I've reviewed, more than any other show, including Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. Since the second Clinton presidency, Philly has hosted the original national tour, many local productions, and a 2009 reboot featuring its original Broadway leading men, Adam Rapp and Anthony Pascal, and "Seasons of Love" soloist Gwen Stewart.
Bristol's entry isn't the best Rent I've seen, but it might be the best production I've seen there, and that's not meant as a backhanded compliment.
Despite its pedigree (four Tonys, a Pulitzer) and legendary backstory (its young creator, Jonathan Larson, died of a heart ailment the night before its Off-Broadway opening), Rent is unusual for Bristol, which favors All-American classics but has gently leaned toward the topical in recent seasons. Theirs is a scrappy version, maybe closest to the experience of seeing it in a workshop during those heady days of ACT UP and the Clintons. And this may be many Bristol patrons' first encounter with the musical — loosely based on Puccini's La Boheme — which follows a group of squatters with varying degrees of HIV status, drug addiction, romantic entanglement, and creative impulses.
Director Jose Zayas remains mostly, but not entirely, faithful, presenting a scaffold-straddling Mimi with wild curls (Brit West), a scruffy Roger (Mark Willis Borum), and bespectacled documentarian Mark (James LaRosa) — though Mark's iconic striped scarf seems to have gone missing. In addition, Benny (Joseph Michael O'Brien), the group's former friend-turned-sellout landlord, is white, rather than African American. These are changes I've never seen, and they will matter only to diehard Rentheads; but if you're one, consider yourself warned.
West's inconsistent vocals, which fade in and out on "Out Tonight," matter more, as does Julian Alvarez's halfhearted Angel, a central role. He's sweet and can execute a high kick, but as he's neither dancer nor percussionist nor outsize personality, the role's a wash. There are times — for example, when Keith Baker's musical direction lags behind the vocals or overpowers them entirely — that feel as though we're watching merely a solid, if second-rate, effort.
Then there are others — when the 15-person cast sings as an ensemble — when Zayas' production makes the Bristol house feel twice as big. Standouts, such as Jamila Sabares-Klemm as performance artist Maureen, fiery and funny in "Over the Moon," and Tracie Franklin's Joanne, who sings a strong, sexy power duet with Maureen, "Take Me or Leave Me," offer a taste of why Rent, when it's not too reverent, still feels fresh.