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Rent Control

Entertaining musical concoction could use more punch

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With apologies to James Brown, I'd be more than happy to bestow the title of "the hardest working man in show business" to Rob Marshall if he had been allowed the opportunity to direct back-to-back-to-back screen adaptations of Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera and the new theatrical release, Rent. Marshall, who guided Chicago to multiple Oscars and massive box office returns, clearly has the chops to wrestle gargantuan Broadway musicals to the screen, and it would have been interesting to see what he could have done with the other two hot properties (at one point, he was one of the candidates considered to tackle Rent, along with Spike Lee and Sam Mendes).

Instead, two veteran directors not exactly known for their visual flourishes were snagged to helm these big-ticket items: Joel Schumacher on Phantom and Chris Columbus on Rent. Columbus arguably had the easier task of the pair, and while his take on Rent is too controlled and confining to rank among the great screen musicals (or even compete with Chicago), he has turned out a perfectly respectable picture. If anything, Rent is most similar to Richard Attenborough's 1985 adaptation of the stage smash A Chorus Line, with a catchy (if occasionally clunky) score and some good performances making up for the director's lack of imagination.

To be fair, I liked what Columbus did with the first two Harry Potter movies, and a couple of his musical set pieces here threaten to break through the fourth wall and spill into the auditorium. But for all its energy, the movie as a whole never quite busts free, a problem that may rest more with the modern film industry's inexperience with musicals than with anything Columbus brings to the party. There hasn't been a great movie musical since Milos Forman's Hair back in 1979, and outer space has long since replaced the songbook as the filmmakers' avenue of choice for fanciful flights of expression and imagination. Given the current climate in Hollywood, I'm inclined to give Columbus a break, since his movie is easy to like and even easier to hum.

Puccini wrote his opera La Boheme back in 1896, and it was exactly 100 years later that Jonathan Larson's update Rent created seismic waves in the theater world, first with a successful off-Broadway run, then as the hottest item on Broadway, and finally as the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, several Tony Awards and other hefty honors too numerous to mention. (Tragically, Larson never enjoyed the spoils of victory, dying a few days before his show opened off-Broadway.) Rent rather faithfully follows the story structure of La Boheme, although Larson injected a sense of immediacy by adding AIDS to the equation.

Unfolding in the late 1980s, the story centers on a group of bohemians trying to get by while living in New York's East Village. Mark (Anthony Rapp), a filmmaker, and Roger (Adam Pascal), a songwriter, share a grungy apartment that they're in danger of losing if they don't cough up the rent to Benny (Taye Diggs), a former friend who ended up marrying the landlord's daughter and now acts as a suit-wearing enforcer.

Mark and Roger open their space to their philosophical friend, Tom (Jesse L. Martin), who has just entered into a relationship with a street drummer named Angel (Tony Award winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia). Living in the flat downstairs is Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a stripper whose eye is caught by the passive Roger. For his part, Mark has just had his heart broken by kooky performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel), who left him for another woman, a lawyer named Joanne (Tracie Thoms).

If this all sounds like Melrose Place on welfare, the story's defining characteristic is that half of its leading players are HIV-positive, contracting the illness through sex or drug use. This is where the piece's poignancy makes itself right at home, as the afflicted characters movingly cope with the illness in different ways, whether through withdrawal (Roger), studied acceptance (Tom) or living life to the fullest (Mimi and especially Angel, who not-so-subtly lives up to the lofty expectations of his name). Yet the film isn't without its fair share of humor, much of it courtesy of Maureen: The character's one-woman show is a hilarious case study in dementia for the sake of artistic expression.

With two exceptions, the stage cast has been reunited for this film version, and it's difficult to imagine anybody wanting it any other way. I was sorely disappointed that Daphne Rubin-Vega, who earned raves for playing Mimi on stage, wasn't available (she was pregnant during the shooting stage), but Dawson does fine in the part, embodying the character's playfulness while retaining her troubled edge. All of the other actors register strongly as well, with Rapp's frustrated romanticism and Menzel's eye-catching eccentricities standing out.

For a musical, there isn't much dancing per se, and Columbus and choreographer Keith Young stage the few numbers competently if not excitingly. Clearly, the focus is supposed to be on Larson's lyrics, and his sentiments ring true even when some of the phrasing won't exactly conjure images of Gershwin or Berlin (or even Ragni-Rado). But even newcomers to such hits as "I Should Tell You," "Out Tonight" and the inspirational "Seasons of Love" will quickly get into the groove and allow the music to wash over them. So expect Rent CD sales to spike this Christmas, with consumers opting to stuff their own stockings with these new sounds of the season of love.

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