For the down-at-heel band of friends and artists in Fiddlehead Theatre Company’s impassioned production of “Rent,’’ the advent of AIDS has intensified the sense that everything is precarious: Their hold on the places they call home, the people they love, their health, their very lives.
Twenty years ago, the musical’s birth was punctuated by a shocking death, one that delivered a real-life reminder of the suddenness with which it can all slip away. After the show’s final dress rehearsal in preparation for opening off-Broadway, Jonathan Larson, who had labored for years to create “Rent,’’ died unexpectedly in his Greenwich Village apartment at age 35 of an aortic aneurysm — an eerie coincidence that immediately became part of the mystique attached to the musical.
Directed by Stacey Stephens, Fiddlehead’s “Rent’’ has a kinetic energy and gritty spirit that meshes with the life-and-death urgency — and the unabashed melodrama — inherent to Larson’s musical. Though there are a couple of hiccups in the flow between scenes, the ensemble meshes well together on balance, with forcefully committed performances across the board.
Stephens also handled the costume design, and his work there is stellar, from the threadbare garb of the homeless people who cluster at the edges of the action to the gaudy outfits worn by Angel, a cross-dressing street drummer. Also turning in strong work are the members of the five-piece band, conducted by Nathan Urdangen, who perform just offstage at the Back Bay Events Center.
The worldview of “Rent’’ is more than a bit simplistic and its characters are more than a bit self-dramatizing. But there remains something compelling about Larson’s go-for-broke approach, his refusal to hide behind ironic detachment, and his ever-timely reminder that we’re all in this together.
It’s striking, too, how well Larson’s score holds up, including the still-resonant “Seasons of Love,’’ which is sung by the Fiddlehead ensemble at the start of Act 2 while gazing out at the audience, so that the song’s questions, including “How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?,’’ seem addressed to us.
Half of the main characters in “Rent’’ are coping with HIV or AIDS while also facing economic challenges in getting by day-to-day. The audience’s guide through the musical, which is loosely based on Puccini’s “La Boheme’’ and set in Manhattan’s East Village, is Mark (Scott Caron), a filmmaker who decides to “shoot without a script’’ and “see if anything comes out of it.’’ In the title song, Mark poses a query that’s more pertinent today than ever: “How do you document real life when real life is getting more like fiction each day?’’
Mark lives in an industrial loft with Roger (Matthew Belles), a despondent songwriter, but they’re being threatened with eviction by their former roommate and current landlord, Benny (Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia). Benny is depicted as a sellout who embodies the forces of gentrification intent on co-opting and commodifying art.
Roger becomes romantically involved with Mimi (Ryoko Seta), a drug-addicted dancer in the Cat Scratch Club. Belles does a nice job on the haunting “One Song Glory,’’ and Seta skillfully communicates the fiery essence beneath Mimi’s languor in “Out Tonight,’’ but their duet on “Light My Candle,’’ which should register as a key moment of connection, fails to click.
Also in Mark’s orbit is his former girlfriend, Maureen (Katie Howe), a bisexual performance artist who is now locked in a tempestuous relationship with Joanne (Brandi Porter), a level-headed attorney. Porter and Caron deftly team up on “Tango: Maureen,’’ an amusing song-and-dance sequence of commiseration over the bewitching but mercurial Maureen. Howe delivers a clever comic turn in the over-the-top “Over the Moon.’’
The most poignant couple onstage consists of college lecturer Tom Collins (John Devereaux) and the aforementioned Angel (Jay Kelley). Their duet on “I’ll Cover You,’’ a tender pledge of mutual support in hard times, is very moving.
“Rent’’ has hit many benchmarks of success: It ran for 12 years and 5,000-plus performances on Broadway, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best musical, and was adapted into a film.
But its most important legacy can be found in the innumerable young “Rentheads’’ who have embraced Jonathan Larson’s musical because they saw in it a reflection of their own rebellions, struggles, and aspirations. The Fiddlehead production reminds us that Larson’s exhortation to seize the moment — “No day but today’’ — is still a message worth heeding.
Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Stacey Stephens
Choreography, Wendy Hall. Music director, Nathan Urdangen.
Presented by Fiddlehead Theatre Company at Back Bay Events Center, Boston. Through Feb. 21. Tickets $25-$40, 617-514-6497, www.fiddleheadtheatre.com