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Rent still crackles with energy and wit

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Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal in Rent - PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS

Rent
SunTrust Broadway Series
Durham Performing Arts Center
Through Jan. 25

Let's say it clearly at the start: This review needs to be as much about the venue—the new Durham Performing Arts Center—as it is about the professional touring version of Jonathan Larson's remarkable tribute to struggling young artists, of the 1990s and all ages.

For the second musical theater production here confirms the preliminary findings from the first one in December: This room loves music.

Though it actually holds more people than its boxy cousin down the road, it feels significantly more intimate. Two shows in, we now confirm that a lot of that has to do with the room's acoustics. Where Raleigh Memorial Auditorium's cavernous expanses have regularly thwarted touring sound designers (most recently during A Chorus Line), DPAC so far has proved the better host, with sound as warm and rich as the room's wood paneling and red carpet.

In short, if you were planning on seeing this musical, this room would be an optimal place to do it.

Thankfully, there is quite a show to see. Twelve years after its Broadway premiere, you'd fear a piece about an ambitious young Downtown New York crew—including a documentary filmmaker, a songwriter, a computer whiz, a street percussionist (and drag queen par excellence), a legal eagle and a performance artist, of all things—might come across as dated.

But Rent still crackles with creative energy and subversive wit—when, that is, it isn't navigating slow grooves and angst-ridden or life-affirming anthems of love. Congratulate whoever is doing Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal's makeup—neither looks appreciably older than when I saw them as the twin leads, filmmaker Mark and rock hero Roger, in the original production in New York.

To their company admit Michael McElroy, whose sinuous, soulful voice as Tom Collins on "Santa Fe" and "I'll Cover You" warmed the room up even more. Gwen Stewart's authoritative, gospel-tinged delivery stopped the show during her extended solo in "Seasons of Love." Earlier, Nicolette Hart milked the dubious performance piece "Over the Moon" for laughs, between bouts with Haneefah Wood as her squabbling lover Joanne.

If Lexi Lawson's work as the vulnerable Mimi doesn't make us forget Daphne Rubin-Vega, it's hard to imagine whose interpretation could. Ditto for Justin Johnson's star turn, which, for its merits, still proved a somewhat lesser Angel than Wilson Jermaine Heredia's classic original take.

Is the show still worth the seeing? Bet the rent—particularly here.

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