Rent cast

The artistic squatters of Waco Civic Theatre's "Rent" - Buddy Novak (left),  LaBraska Washington, Emily Perzan and Joey Tamayo confront former roommate Coty Johnson (seated).

Staff photo — Jerry Larson

For those who haven't seen the Waco Civic Theatre's production of the musical "Rent," now would be the weekend to do so.

It's the last weekend and to sweeten the deal (as well as echo one of the stories of the original Broadway production), the theater will offer $10 front-row rush tickets. Arrive about 10 minutes before showtime and whatever's still available on the floor, including some seats in the first few rows, will go for $10.

Rush tickets or not, what final week audiences will see is some impressive talent, some of which hasn't appeared on a WCT stage before, even if it feels like time has moved on - in a good way and maybe not - since the original stormed Broadway in the 1990s.

The story, roughly based on the Puccini opera "La Boheme," has a handful of threadbare artists holing up in an unheated, sparse Manhattan apartment. They're not paying rent, even as the landlord is a former friend and roommate, and AIDS is starting to erode their community of friends.

Videographer - before the word was invented - Mark (Joey Tamayo, a delight in the WCT's "Million Dollar Quartet") tells the story as it spins out over a year. Roommate and rock guitarist Roger (Garrett McPherson) is in a deep funk from both his girlfriend's suicide after finding she's HIV-positive and the discovery that he is, too. That funk threatens the creativity he hopes to tap for one last good song he can leave as legacy.

Roommate Collins (LaBraska Washington), a former MIT professor, is homeless and has AIDS, but falls for drag queen Angel (Buddy Novak), who takes him in and loves him. Like Collins, Angel has AIDS.  Mark's former girlfriend Maureen (Emily Perzan), a performance artist, has left him for a woman, the liberal public lawyer Joanne (Charity Gaines), who, in turn, discovers that Maureen is far from exclusive when it comes to sexual partners.

Then there's Mimi (Alexzandria Siprian), a club dancer who's also an addict. She and Roger fall for each other despite their possibly doomed futures, death by AIDS for him, overdose for her. Another former roommate of Mark and Roger is Benny (Coty Johnson), who's now their landlord and urging them to find jobs rather than continue their bohemian, but unemployed lives.

It all sounds melodramatic when put to paper (so does "La Boheme"), but the WCT production directed by Phillip Diaz doesn't come off that way, thanks to some of the leading performances. A standout is Novak, whose silken dancing and stage presence - some of the smoothest that I've seen at the WCT - is matched by his singing and acting. Washington, in his singing and acting, makes the other half of that relationship work.

The pairing of Perzan and Gaines also works well, Perzan's a triple talent like Novak with a simmering sexuality expressed in a skin-tight cat costume for New Year's Eve as well as a cheeky flash - literally, if you know what I mean - in the anarchic energy of the ensemble's "La Vie Boheme." Gaines has considerable vocal chops, too, and holds her own on the floor with Tamayo in "Tango: Maureen."

Tamayo's drive and singing propels the story through a year's time, even as his character is both a part of the group and observer of it. 

McPherson started strong as Roger, but, in the second weekend's performance I saw, began to lose his voice by the second half. Siprian handled her character's dancer physicality, but seemed distractingly healthy and robust for a person flirting with death in her addiction.

Time has sapped "Rent" of some of its immediate drama and tension, however. AIDS and HIV are no longer the death sentence they once seemed to be. The kisses and sex between characters that seem natural parts of relationship back then had a subtext of mortal risk - which made "Rent's message of "no day like today" and living and loving for the moment all the more important.

And though Benny is painted as a villain, a yuppie sellout for pursuing profit over La Vie Boheme, the entrepreneurial sense of many young artists today makes his advice seem only practical, while Mark's dithering on whether to take money for footage he shot feels more like youthful folly.

"Rent's" music is solid, both vocally and in the onstage combo led by Cameron Dinkins, with music direction from Tommy Edds.

"Rent" continues through Sunday, May 20, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $20 and $18 for Friday and Saturday, $18 and $16 for Sunday - unless, of course, you want to live for the moment and get those last-minute $10 rush seats.

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor