Moved and moving

Moved and moving
Through Jan. 23 at Orlando Shakespeare Theater
812 E. Rollins St.

The history of Jonathan Larson's Rent is a real-life tragedy-to-triumph legend: promising young artist pens musical about promising young artists facing death; artist dies unexpectedly dies before opening; show goes on to win plaudits and Pulitzer prizes.

The history of Greater Orlando Actor's Theatre's current production of Rent is equally fraught, though thankfully free of fatalities, so far. First they were prohibited from officially announcing the show, due to the national touring company production that passed through Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre just last month. Then "structural issues" in their Cherry Street home space forced them out shortly before their premiere, as explained in a press release.

Thanks to Orlando Shakespeare Theater, which stepped up and offered GOAT their luxurious Goldman stage, the story has a happy ending. After a frantic few days of set-shifting and light-rehanging, Rent opened Jan. 9, only one day after originally intended, in an inspiring display of community spirit.

My long-standing ambivalence (edging toward antipathy) regarding Rent is public record; I gave the recent Broadway tour a grudgingly good review, largely for the efforts of the returning original performers. Can a community cast hope to compare? Happily, yes: GOAT's production possesses a youthful enthusiasm that reminds me of what seemed so exciting back in 1996.

Struggling filmmaker Mark Cohen (played by Adam Galarza) and songwriter Roger Davis (Adam McCabe) are squatting in SoHo until they and their friends are evicted on Christmas Eve by roommate-turned-landlord Benny (Michael Osowski). We follow a year in their bohemian life as they face AIDS, addiction, unemployment and other upbeat subjects. Galarza and McCabe are solid in the starring roles; they can't compete with originators Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal in charisma or stamina, but they don't adopt their famous forerunners' unbearable affectations either.

Supporting standouts include Lana Stevens as performance artist Maureen and Desiree Perez as her girlfriend/manager Joanne (they outdo the pros with their blistering "Take Me or Leave Me"), and Joshua Roth and Wyatt Glover as the ill-fated couple Angel and Tom Collins. But the real revelation is Ana Bateman as strung-out stripper Mimi: Her attractiveness is exceeded only by her rich voice and raw emotions. She gives the most exciting take I've seen on the role since Daphne Rubin-Vega.

Director Leesa Halstead has slimmed down the already spare show: Scaffolding becomes a steel railing, a scrap-metal monolith is scaled down to Christmas-tree size. Staging is copied straight from Broadway, making for some messy moments on the smaller stage, but there are a few fun innovations (like a trio of intoxicated backup dancers in "Santa Fe"). Live musicians are replaced by synthesized backing tracks ranging from anemic to acceptable. The karaoke kills some of the show's rock-concert spirit, but at least I understand almost all the lyrics despite spotty microphones (I'll grant the sound crew a "get out of jail free" for opening night), and music director Don Hopkinson milks marvelous harmonies from ensemble numbers.

I'm still no Rent-head, but fans will find much more fun here than in the moldy 2005 movie. And there are two more productions of Rent coming up this spring, by UCF Conservatory Theatre (April 1-11) and Orlando Youth Theatre (May 20-31). After the run at Orlando Shakes, Rent continues through Feb. 27 at Greater Orlando Actors Theatre, 669 Cherry St.

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