Story: Life isn’t easy for Mark and his friends on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It’s the early 1990s, and the long, grim shadow of HIV and AIDS looms ominously over them, since most of Mark’s friends are afflicted with one or the other. Beyond that, this group of starving artists ekes out the most meager of existences, making do with dilapidated conditions in their apartment buildings while they struggle to hone their crafts.

Mark is a fledgling documentarian, whose girlfriend Maureen has left him for a woman, a power-broker attorney named Joanne. His roommate Roger is a floundering musician whose girlfriend April killed herself when she learned that both of them were HIV-positive.

A former roommate with AIDS, Tom Collins, is an erstwhile teacher and a computer whiz who has fallen in love with an AIDS-afflicted drag queen named Angel Dumott Schunard. And downstairs neighbor Mimi is an exotic dancer and drug addict with HIV who is drawn toward Roger after a former relationship with Benny, their landlord and still another one-time roommate.

The specter of death is omnipresent for these Bohemian spirits, but they persevere against all odds in their pursuit of their own artistic and emotional expression.

Highlights: Rent received the Pulitzer Prize for drama for its author, Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for this landmark musical that earned Tony Awards in 1996 for Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical. Incredibly, Larson died the night before its Off-Broadway premiere, unaware of the Pulitzer Prize and the fact that Rent would move later that year to Broadway for a 12-year run.

Based on Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, a series of stories written by Henri Murger in the 1840s, and Puccini’s 1896 opera, La Boheme, Rent presently is being performed by New Line Theatre to sold-out houses, including a most appreciative audience at the opening Saturday evening performance.

Other Info: As good as New Line’s production is under the meticulous guidance of artistic director Scott Miller, there remains that lingering problem of self-pity and accompanying anger which afflicts some, although not all, of Rent’s characters.

Still, Miller’s effort features some truly terrific voices that blend well with the excellent musical accompaniment of the New Line Band, which is led by conductor and pianist Justin Smolik. Situated at back center stage, amidst the gritty, evocative set designed and illuminated by Rob Lippert, the New Line Band provides smart embellishment for Larson’s intelligent and often catchy tunes. Smolik is joined by lead guitarist D. Mike Bauer, Vince Clark on bass, Aaron Doerr on rhythm guitar and percussionist Clancy Newell.

Costume designers Sarah Porter and Marcy Weigert offer a smorgasbord of funky leggings and tight pants for the women and casual garb for the guys as well as a smart collection of skirts for drag queen Angel. Kudos as well to the assorted scenic painters and graffiti artists who dress up Lippert’s noticeable scenic design: Melanie Kozak, Sharon Russell, Gary Karasek, William Wade, Kathleen Dwyer, Mitchell Matthews and Justin Foizey.

Alison Helmer adds props that cleverly come into play on the set. I can’t say, though, that I was smitten with the large disk situated squarely in the middle of the stage, which seemed to inhibit and hinder the flow of performers rather than draw attention to them. One also might wish for more contributions by gifted choreographer Robin Michelle Berger, whose moves added charm and grace to the Tango: Maureen number performed by Mark and Joanne.

Some wonderful voices are demonstrated in the course of the two-and-a-half-hour show, most notably Luke Steingruby as Angel and Anna Skidis as Mimi. Both persuasively act their lyrics as well as sing them, as does animated Jeremy Hyatt as the brooding Mark.

Porter is a vacuous delight as the addle-brained Maureen, lost in her own shallow performance art, and Cody LaShea is convincing as the power-suit attorney Joanne. Marshall Jennings and Evan Fornachon do well with their stage time as Tom Collins and Roger, respectively, while Shawn Bowers is suitably sleazy as sell-out and former chum Benny.

The cast also features a number of New Line regulars as well as newcomers in smaller roles, including Kevin Corpuz, Robert Lee Davis III, Zachary Allen Farmer, Ryan Foizey, Wendy Greenwood, Melissa Harris, Nellie Mitchell and Marcy Wiegert.

Seeing Rent up close and personal at New Line’s theater is a definite improvement over the more impersonal venue at The Fox, where touring companies have done the show with seemingly less impact. Still, despite a strong demand for tickets and enthusiastic response from patrons, there’s at least one observer who doesn’t want to see Rent again.

Musical: Rent

Company: New Line Theatre

Venue: Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road

Dates: March 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22, 27, 28, 29

Tickets: $10-$20; contact 534-1111 or

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Jill Ritter Lindberg