Those who have only seen the recent film version of “Rent” are probably puzzled by the whole “Rent” phenomenon. By having the sung narrative sections be spoken, eliminating key musical moments and reshuffling much of the rest—not to mention using most of the work’s aging original cast a decade after the fact—the movie is a tardy, pale imitation of the way that this show took the world by storm with its youthful enthusiasm and contagious energy that ended up sucking in multi-generational audiences right into the experience. Adding to its mystique was the fact that the composer of this updated transposition of Puccini’s “La bohème” from a nineteenth-century Paris garret with tuberculosis looming overhead to a 1990s flat in Greenwich Village with AIDS as the culprit, died suddenly of a burst aortic aneurysm on the night before “Rent” was to open. A mere 36 years old when he died and so living the Bohemian lifestyle described in the show that the set designer made sure that the flat actually looked better than the composer’s own so as not make him feel self-conscious, there can now be little question that the late Jonathan Larson would have become the toast of Broadway had he lived. It’s an odd paradox, given that Larson was such a romantic and an optimist that he couldn’t even bring himself to kill off the heroine in his version the way Puccini had, and that all of the show’s songs are so magnificently life-affirming right to the bitter end. The big question a decade and a movie later is can “Rent” stand on its own and does it have a future beyond yesterday’s headlines? The answer is a resounding “yes” on both counts as the show’s tenth-anniversary touring production has set up shop for a brief area stint with a young, unknown and uneven non-equity cast. And though “Rentheads” may miss the star power of some of the show’s earlier downtown runs, one of the indications of a long future for “Rent” on stage is precisely the fact that even with a mostly mediocre cast, the show is able to work its magic live in a manner that even its original cast on film could not replicate. (Dennis Polkow)
Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, (312)902-1400. $22.50-$68. Through April 15.