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For Rent — but mostly against

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While I'm not insensitive to the ravages of AIDS, the hardships of principled artists, the daily struggles of open gays, or the poignant tragedy of a composer who didn't live to see the premiere of his defining work, I've never really liked Rent. At all. One time when a Rent tour played Charlotte, I discreetly missed it.

As the day neared for "The Farewell Tour" to hit Charlotte, I was tempted to miss Jonathan Larson's last will and musical testament yet again. But without seeing Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp as Roger and Mark, the pivotal roles they created on Broadway, how can a critic really say he's never liked Rent? To make that statement authoritatively, I had to go to Ovens Auditiorium and give "La Vie Boheme" one more chance.

Well, I'm glad I did. I'm not sure I can remember three notes from "La Vie" -- or any of the 26 other non-Puccini songs -- and I certainly haven't revised my opinion that the work never deserved a Tony or a Pulitzer. I still have deeper respect for Larson's tick, tick ... BOOM! but I found far more in Rent's farewell than in any of its previous hellos. Chalk that up to Pascal and Rapp. Makes a difference when you sing the lyrics with clarity and an actor's conviction.

By simply acting their characters, Pascal and Rapp dispelled the impression of noxious self-absorption that their touring predecessors emitted with every rock-concert hop, superstar mannerism and slurred lyric. There's a story here with human protagonists, and these guys were willing to give it up for art. Just like those Bohemians they were portraying.

Pascal didn't help me very much with the question of what songwriter Roger Davis was doing with his life, but suddenly there was poignancy to his doomed, sporadic romance with junkie exotic dancer Mimi Marquez. And if indefatigable filmmaker Mark Cohen still doesn't convince me that taking a commercial job (and paying your damn rent) extinguishes your artistic flame, Rapp makes his passion and his dressed-down zealotry as real as an East Village loft.

I liked the swagger of Lexi Lawson as Mimi in "Out Tonight" nearly as much as her ultra-tight tush. Otherwise, the large sprawling cast strutted across the stage with the same I'm-starring-in-Rent attitude that had plagued previous tours. Lyrics were intermittently intelligible, the "Light My Candle" duet came off with all the tender intimacy of an MTV video, and slumlord Benny (Jacques C. Smith) and Legal Aid lawyer/community organizer Joanne (Haneefah Wood) were so breathtakingly bland in their coolness they might as well have been interchangeable. Director Michael Grief indulges the conceptual clutter, allowing style to vanquish substance.

Only a couple of other cast members have a clue. Michael McElroy wears his heart on his sleeve as computer geek Tom Collins, unabashedly carrying his torch for transvestite Angel Schunard (Justin Johnson). His vocal excellence is equaled by Gwen Stewart, an original cast member whose cameos supply welcome infusions of musical and emotional grit.

Staying away from Rent all these years helped me to feel a genuine tug when Mimi was carried into Roger's shabby apartment for the denouement -- more emotion than I'd felt up at Lincoln Center during my umpteenth La Boheme in December. But then Mimi survives?! All Larson's righteousness about selling out to mass culture is unmasked in that instant as totally bogus.

So I still despise Rent. But not altogether.

Ken Ludwig has written two of the most successful comedies of the past 20 years, Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo, so the guy knows how to get a theater crowd laughing. On opening night at Theatre Charlotte last Thursday, Shakespeare in Hollywood proved that Ludwig hasn't lost his finely tuned funnybone. Nor has he strayed from his customary paydirt, keeping within the confines of showbiz -- from Broadway to the boonies -- as always, transporting us back to the Golden Era pre-dating the fatal demise of The Ed Sullivan Show.

In his Shakespeare, movie history mixes with fantasy at a most appropriate time: as Austrian theater director Max Reinhardt is filming A Midsummer Night's Dream for Warner Brothers with a cast including such notables as James Cagney, Dick Powell, Joe E. Brown, Victor Jory, Anita Louise, Mickey Rooney and the soon-to-be-notable Olivia de Havilland, Reinhardt's huge discovery.

The anomaly of Warner Brothers bankrolling the Bard gets Ludwig's full comedic attention, as the playwright incentivizes producer Jack Warner with a starlet honey he's burning to placate. Reinhardt deftly helps Lydia tighten the screws on Warner to get the film green-lighted, but then he must endure her Shakespearean inadequacies in the key role of Helena in Midsummer.

So does Shakespeare actually materialize in 1935 Hollywood? Not exactly, although there are numerous patches of telltale pentameter beyond the realm of Midsummer that indicate Ludwig toyed seriously with that idea. These fruits from the First Folio are now the province of Oberon, the fairy king, and his delightful minion, the incomparably incompetent Puck. Their arrival on Reinhardt's movie set is serendipitous, to be sure, since Jory and Rooney are indisposed.

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