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Still livin’ ‘La Vie Bohème’

An American musical classic returns

Rent 20th Anniversary Tour comes to the Pantages Theater Sept. 24-25. Photo courtesy Work Light Productions

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Italian composer Giacomo Puccini was a star in his own time; his legacy remains eminent among the operatic pantheon. Yet even he could never have expected the way his 1896 opera La Bohème, about young bohemians in Paris' earthy Latin Quarter, would be transplanted a hundred years later. A belted version launched in 1988, when playwright Billy Aronson began work on an adaptation of the opera for Broadway-style musical theater. He recruited composer Jonathan Larson, then only 29, to work on the project. Neither Aronson nor Larson were established talents at the time, though Larson had earned letters of recommendation from no less than Stephen Sondheim. The result of their work was Rent, a rock musical set in lower Manhattan's East Village -- just blocks from Larson's apartment -- set in contemporary times and informed by the devastating ravages of AIDS.

Adding to the pathos of the play was a real-life tragedy that befell its creative team. Larson had an undiagnosed condition, probably Marfan syndrome, and the night before the show's premiere off Broadway, he suffered an aortic dissection that killed him a few hours later. The condition is difficult to detect, so much so it hadn't shown up on a chest X-ray and electrocardiogram already administered at St. Vincent's Hospital. Larson's doctors had thought he might simply be dealing with stress, perhaps a mundane case of the flu. His signature production moved to Broadway's Nederlander Theatre in the spring of 1996 and played there for 12 years. It won four Tony awards including Best Musical, grossed over $280 million and spawned a 2005 movie starring much of the original cast. To this day, countless young actors keep roles like Mark, a struggling documentarian, and Mimi, a Latina club dancer and heroin addict, on their bucket lists. Lin-Manuel Miranda cited Rent as a major influence on his work, and "Tango: Maureen" and "Seasons of Love" remain standouts in the American songbook. An abridged version for high schools, released in 2007, yielded a new generation of adoring "Rent-heads."

It's easy, then, to see the appeal of an ongoing, non-Equity, traveling production, dubbed the "20th Anniversary Tour" when it opened in Dallas, Texas, in 2016. That cast, which includes Coleman Cummings as Roger, Aiyana Smash as Mimi and Joshua Tavares as Angel, hits the Pantages Theater for two weeknight performances in late September. "I think Rent is still relevant because it was so groundbreaking," said Cummings. "Young theatergoers still relate to it because it is about more than the AIDS epidemic, it's about the human experience."

Cummings said he considers himself fortunate to be in a cast talented enough to keep this material fresh. "Sometimes it surprises me what moments hit me," he reported. "The other day, I just started crying during ‘Seasons of Love.' I became overwhelmed with happiness to have the privilege to tell this special story every night."

When asked what makes this touring production the best possible version of the show, Cummings noted it "was put together with many of the creatives from the original Broadway production. (Choreographer) Marlies Yearby, (costume designer) Angela Wendt and (music supervisor) Tim Weil were all part of the creative team for this production. It's a version of the show that honors Jonathan's vision." He added, "From the first day of rehearsal, this whole cast just clicked and got along like a family -- and I think the audience can see that."

RENT 20TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR, 7:30 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 24 and 25, The Pantages Theater, Tacoma Arts Live, 901 Broadway, Tacoma, $45-$129, 253.591.5890,

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