Fiddlehead’s ‘Rent’ a worthy tribute to an icon

The cast of the Fiddlehead Theatre Company's 20th anniversaryh proiduction of “Rent.” Photo courtesy Fiddlehead Theatre Company  copyright Eric Antoniou

The cast of the Fiddlehead Theatre Company’s 20th anniversaryh proiduction of “Rent.” Photo courtesy Fiddlehead Theatre Company copyright Eric Antoniou

BOSTON – Has it really been 20 years since a young playwright turned the theater world on its head?

Rent” debuted at the New York Theatre Workshop on Jan. 22, 1996. the story of poor young artists in New York City’s East Village struggling to survive and create a life in the thriving days of Bohemina Alphabet City, set against the background of the HIV-AIDS crisis.

As if the story itself weren’t compelling enough, the tale of how creator Jonathan Larson died suddenly from an aortic dissection the night before the show’s off-Broadway premiere would have sealed the deal.

A few months later, the musical  made its Broadway debut at the Nederlander Theatre, where it continued for more than 5,000 performances, winning Tonys, a Pulitzer Prize and the admiration of a legion of “Rent Heads” who have seen the show multiple times.

The Fiddlehead Theatre Company is marking the show’s 20th anniversary with a production of “Rent” at the Back Bay Events Center, and it is a worthy tribute to the iconic musical, smartly staged, and featuring some strong performances.

No musical has ever spoke so eloquently to a generation as did “Rent,” and the scourge that was the AIDS epidemic, at a time when the disease had yet to be contained and was still a death sentence for many. Now it works more as a period piece, but a very effective period ;piece.

Jay Kelley as Angel and John Devereaux as  Tom Collins in “Rent.” Photo courtesy Fiddlehead Theatre Company  copyright Eric Antoniou.

Jay Kelley as Angel and John Devereaux as Tom Collins in “Rent.” Photo courtesy Fiddlehead Theatre Company copyright Eric Antoniou.

Rent” is loosely based on Giacomo P:uccini’s opera “La Boheme,” and pays tribute to that not only in its characters and structure but in the rousing production number “La Vie Boheme.”

And while its place in theatrical history is secure, “Rent” as a theatrical vehicle is uneven at best. because while “Rent” had workshops, Larson died the night before the first off-Broadway production, and he never had the chance to tweak the show based on audiences’ and critics’ reactions from the early performances. The show was immediately frozen in time, for better or for worse.

Matthew Belles \is Roger, the former junkie and struggling musician trying to regain his footing after his girlfriend committed suicide after learning both of them were HIV-positive. He is a wee bit long tin the tooth to play the part, but he has a gritty rock voice that holds up well under the demands of the role.

Scott Caron works well as Mark Cohen, Roger’s best friend and a budding filmmaker who chronicles the life and times of his friends while rebounding from his failed relationship with the sexy performance artist Maureen Johnson (Katie Howe). He does a nice job in the funny dance number “Tango Maureen” with lawyer Joanne Jefferson (Brandi Porter), his rival for Maureen’s affections.

Ryoko Seta brings the requisite wounded vulnerability to Mimi Marquez, the HIV-positive dancer who has taken up with wealthy landlord Benjamin Coffin III (Christhian Mancinas-Garcia) but has real feelings for Roger.

John Devereaux is just right as Tom Collins, the street person/computer whiz, and while Jay Kelley is by far the biggest actor I’ve ever seen play Angel, there’s no faulting the performance or the vocal ability, proving talent comes in large and small packages.

Wendy Hall’s choreography is another bright spot, while Nathan Urdangen leads a tight five-piece band gives the Larson score its full due, including “One Song Glory,” “I’ll Cover You” “Another Day” and “Without You,” songs which would become anthems for a generation.

More good news: The sound issues that were a problem at Fiddlehead’s former home at the the Strand Theatre in Dorchester were gone, baby, gone with Brian McCoy’s sound design at a recent performance of “Rent.”

Paul Tate Depoo III’s multi-level scenic design of the spare squatters’ quarters in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse is effective.

Director Stacey Stephens, Fiddlehead’s associate producing artistic director who also designed the costumes, has a well-earned reputation for quality work, nurturing up-and-coming talent and getting the best out of young performers.

Rent” was responsible for bringing in many young theater-goers who had probably never seen live theater before, drawn both by the characters — who were more diverse than Broadway had ever seen before and looked like them – and Larson’s energetic op-rock score.

Twenty years later – 10,512,000 minutes, to be exact — when the cast gets together after intermission to sing “Seasons of Love,” it  can still send a chill down your spine and leave a lump in your throat, whether you’re a “Rent Head” or you’re seeing the show for the first time.

The Fiddlehead Theatre Company’s production of “Rent.” Book, Music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Stacey Stephens. Founding producing artistic director Meg Fofonoff. Scenic design by Paul Tate Depoo III. Lighting design by Zach Blane. Sound design by Brian McCoy. Costume design by Stacey Stephens. At the Back Bay Events Center, Berkeley Street, Boston,. through Feb. 21