Theater review: "Rent," the classic late-'90s Broadway rock opera by Jonathan Larson, tours to Seattle's Paramount Theater June 16-21, 2009, in a staging that holds up remarkably well, with original stars Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp back as Roger and Mark; review by Misha Berson.

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Theater Review |

Longtime fans of “Rent” well know that the many touring editions of this landmark 1996 rock musical have not been created equal.

There have been some lackluster and/or semiprofessional road productions of Jonathan Larson’s pop-opera about HIV-positive, gay and art-outlaw squatters in lower Manhattan circa the late 1980s.

So if you’re craving “Rent” — either as a devotee or a first-timer — your best option is to catch the Class A tour stopping at the Paramount Theatre through Sunday.

The production brings back two pivotal, original cast members, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, both in fine voice and form as (respectively) the melancholy rock musician Roger and the exuberant, Woody Allen-ish filmmaker Mark.

Also, the staging has been refreshed by Michael Greif, who directed “Rent” in its inception at New York Theatre Workshop, and on Broadway, where it logged more than 5,000 performances.

For this tour, Greif has revved up and restored the show to its tattered former glory, stocking it mostly with strong actor-singer alums of other “Rent” companies.

And the musical, so identified with another era, holds up surprisingly well. Pop culture now moves at such scary warp-speed it’s hard to recall what a breakthrough it was for a Broadway show to deal so frankly, at times nonchalantly, with heroin addiction, AIDS and homosexuality.

But seeing “Rent” again is a reminder that Larson (who died at 35, just before the show premiered) wasn’t just about applying some trendy shocks to the Great White Way. The composer-author also crafted a generous score of striking sonic variety, with sly references to his 19th-century model, Puccini’s opera “La Bohème.”And based largely on his own bohemian experiences, Larson paid homage to a multicultural crew of social outcasts and edge-dwellers who banded together in their poverty, illness, despair and hope, to form a surrogate family.

The unelected leaders of the clan include Rapp’s intent chronicler of the scene, Mark, and the grieving, ambivalent Roger.

As the latter, Pascal now delivers his big arias in a stronger, ringing voice with a more metallic edge. His wary Roger succumbs very reluctantly to the charms of fetching Lexie Lawson’s vulnerable addict and “exotic” dancer, Mimi.

A less-guarded romance is fleshed out well by two cast standouts: Michael McElroy as the teacher Tom Collins and Justin Johnston as a ministering sprite of a drag queen, Angel.

A third romantic coupling has not worn as well. The flamboyant performance artist Maureen, played by Nicolette Hart, and her uptight, lawyerly lover Joanne (Haneefah Wood), are stuck in stereotype-ville. And Hart uses her big voice like a blow torch in her songs, and broadly oversells Maureen’s satirized protest piece — which, in any case, is the most dated bit in the show.

Also slightly moldy now is the quasi-villain Benny (Jacques Smith), an ex-roommate-turned-condo-developer who is too patly reviled as a greedy landlord and wooer of the fragile Mimi.

What survives far better is the invigorating staging by Greif and choreographer Marlies Yearby, which has the company dancing on table tops, dangling off staircases and arranging themselves in ragged tableaus vivant, on Paul Clay’s gritty industrial loft set.

It’s the music, however, that may keep “Rent” vital, and preserve the power of its paradoxically commercial expression of youthful brio and rebellion in hard times. (That music merits much better, crisper amplification than it got at the Paramount on opening night.)

The densely harmonized choral numbers — including the ever-haunting “Seasons of Love” — are especially impressive. So are the witty “Tango Maureen,” the tender, recurring “Light My Candle” and the searingly urgent “What You Own,” with its rock-out chorus of “You’re living in America / at the end of the millennium.

We’re now a decade into a new millennium. But for one last hurrah, Pascal and Rapp are still fervently singing about the end of the last one, like they really mean it.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com