Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre continues its 50th anniversary season with a sublime production of "Rent," a play by the late Jonathan Larson that is now marking its 20th anniversary.
Larson's rock opera — loosely based on Puccini's 1896 work, "La Boheme" — won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for drama, as well as four Tony Awards including best musical and best score followed by a 12-year run on Broadway.
Annapolis Summer Garden's expertise in offering theater under the stars is well served in exploiting the compatible "Rent," a show set in 1990s New York City's East Village.
The show's locale is brought to vibrant life by Annapolis-based artist Jeff Huntington's dynamic set, with intertwined layered graffiti bringing its own artful intensity to emotions. Most striking may be Huntington's multi-dimensional fire escape depiction that evolves into varied shadowy abstractions. Huntington's artistry also defines the interior space by inscribing the names and ages the 49 victims of the recent Orlando nightclub shooting in a memorial on the rear wall.
Summer Garden's production is sensitively and scrupulously directed by Andy Scott, who has assembled a first-rate cast to inhabit characters struggling with the trials of living and loving on their own terms.
Scott brings the show's many diverse elements together to move the action smoothly without stinting on emotion. Scott pays attention to every aspect, including playing excerpts from "La Boheme" at intermission, offering a treat for audience opera lovers.
Musical Director Paige Austin Rammelkamp, marking her third time directing "Rent," conducts the onstage band through the vibrant diverse rock score interlaced with gospel and contemporary ballads. The music is nearly continuous, propelling the action much as in classic grand opera.
Also contributing is Casey Lynne Garner in her second Annapolis Summer Garden season, having appeared on stage in last year's "Mystery of Edwin Drood," also under Scott's direction. She returns as choreographer to express characters' love and life challenges through dance.
Guiding audiences through the "Rent" story of young artists searching for identity is filmmaker Mark, played by Tim German, who serves as narrator as he records the action with his in hand-held video camera.
"La Boheme" fans will find many parallels in "Rent" starting with its Christmas Eve start and its focus on the afflictions of heroine Mimi. Mirroring the opera's Mimi and Rodolfo, "Rent" characters Mimi and Roger have an immediate attraction, tempered by Roger's reluctance to leap into a relationship that is soon clouded by jealous wariness.
Rent's Mimi struggles with drug dependence and HIV — problems more relevant today than the consumption afflicting Puccini's Mimi.
Excellent singer and actor David Colton portrays musician Roger, masterfully delivering each song from opening solo "One Song Glory" to the "Light My Candle" duet with Mimi where upon their meeting. Colton conveys Roger's need of freedom, professional ambition and his mounting undeniable consuming love for Mimi. He ultimately proclaims his love in a most touching "Your Eyes."
Athena Blackwood makes a memorable Annapolis Summer Garden debut in the role of free-spirited, earthy Mimi. She signals her attraction to Roger in the "Light My Candle" duet and later reveals a powerful voice capable of expressing a wide emotional range.
"Rent" illustrates additional love stories including the tales of performance artist Maureen, played by Loghan Bazan; and homeless advocate Joanne, played by Andrea Greenwald. The complex relationship between Maureen and Joanne is amusingly clarified in "Take Me or Leave Me," and Greenwald later delivers a show-stopping "Over the Moon" parody that has audience members mooing.
The show's most compelling love story may be between former computer science professor Tom Collins, played by Christian Gonzalez and flamboyant drag queen Angel, played by Nicholas Carter, who arrives at the Christmas party in a fur-fringed Santa jacket accessorized with gold tights and spike heeled boots.
Angel meets Tom soon after he has been beaten and robbed of his coat, which Angel replaces — to Tom's instant affection. With compelling vocal artistry, Gonzalez conveys newfound love in "I'll Cover You" a duet shared with Angel.
Annapolis Summer Garden's production of "Rent" epitomizes high theater art. The show, 143 Compromise St., Annapolis, continues through July 23. For tickets call the box office at 410-268-9212.