East Side Story

Mimi's a junkie, Musetta's a lesbian and the score's R&B. David Patrick Stearns on an alternative La Boheme
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Two of the most powerful influences on mainstream musical theatre couldn't be more disparate: American urban street-culture and grand opera. In one corner, you have the John Adams and Peter Sellars piece I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky, plus two off-Broadway hip hop dance musicals entitled Jam on the Groove and Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk (which reopens on Broadway this spring). In the other, Elton John and Tim Rice are in the process of re-writing Verdi's Aida for Disney and Maria Callas has risen from the dead in Terrence McNally's Master Class, currently on Broadway. From this confluence has emerged one of the oddest, most unexpected and refreshingly vital popular music-theatre pieces in many years, a La Boheme update tersely and unglamorously entitled Rent (as in paying it).

Coinciding with the centenary of the Puccini classic, Rent unfolds in the seedy, trendy Lower East Side of New York - not far from the off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop where it opened on Tuesday. It's not exactly bathed in the nostalgic glow of its operatic predecessor. This is a generation that gambles with its mortality: many won't reach the age of 30 because of drug addiction or Aids. While Puccini's Mimi dropped her key to flirt with Rodolfo, her Rent counterpart drops her heroin stash. Marcello is a fledgling video artist; his Musetta has left him for a lesbian. Colline and Schaunard are lovers, the latter spending most of the show in drag before expiring from Aids.

It may sound like Peter Sellars on overdrive, but Rent has its own fully realised identity, using Puccini only as the backbone of its plot, with some sly musical references to Musetta's Waltz. The rest is R&B, rap, punk - and it's loud. But it's never jokey, because the music is too busy charting the far extremes of comedy and tragedy.

Besides the obvious poignancy of the dramatic situations, the show irreverently sends itself up in a hilarious portrayal of abrasive performance art. Even the characters' idealism never becomes precious, because that's what gives shape to the chaos around them. Outside their worlds, everything is trashed. The alternative to being a starving video artist is working as a cameraman on some exploitative chat show. Aids or no, these lives are at a dead end before they've begun.

The irony is that the show's lyricist/composer/librettist Jonathan Larson died late last month from a heart ailment. Having been nurtured by Stephen Sondheim and others, he was on the verge of greatness. Rock forms are usually too constricting to make room for narrative, but Larson solved that problem brilliantly with rhapsodic vocal lines that encompass extroverted outpourings of love as well as secret wishes to die with dignity.

Much of the music is as freeform as Marc Blitzstein's art-songs, but never seems so because rhyme-schemes are tight and catchy, and rhythmically vigorous melodic hooks are never far away. Most daring of all is "Without You", a love-song that's scrupulously static - harmonically speaking - suggesting a state of grace that its singers are loath to leave. There's hope here: after all, Larson's Mimi, unlike Puccini's, survives at the end, which keeps the show from falling into melodrama.

Directed by Michael Greif, the passionate young cast seem to exist in a state of total identification with their roles, more than compensating for a lack of experience. Some - like Adam Pascal, who plays the Rodolfo counterpart with a rough-hewn charisma - have only worked in rock bands. Anthony Rapp (the Marcello counterpart) has considerably more credits - he's the show's observer and narrator - though Daphne Rubin-Vega, who is possibly the sexiest, most commanding Mimi imaginable, is mainly known for singing on dance-club records. They're all so genuine that most of the mega-musicals so confidently planted on Broadway seem - in comparison - like emotional counterfeits.