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‘Rent’ review: 1990s AIDS play hasn’t lost its meaning

From left, Michelle Veintimilla (Mimi), Anthony Festa (Roger),

From left, Michelle Veintimilla (Mimi), Anthony Festa (Roger), Moeisha McGill (Joanne), Natalie Storrs (Maureen) and Jeremy Greenbaum (Mark) in "Rent" at Gateway Playhouse in Bellport. Credit: Jeff Bellante

WHAT “Rent”

WHEN | WHERE Through June 3. Upcoming: 2 p.m. Wednesday, 2 and 8 p.m. Thursday and next Wednesday, May 31, 8 p.m. Friday and Tuesday, 3 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m., Sunday at Gateway Playhouse, 215 South Country Rd., Bellport

TICKETS $29.50-$89; 631-286-1133, thegateway.org

“Rent” has come of age. It’s been 21 years since it opened on Broadway in the wake of tragedy and a rush of adrenaline and urgency. I won’t calculate here the number of minutes in 21 years — 21 “Seasons of Love” — other than to note that it would require too many syllables for a comprehensible lyric.

As directed at Gateway Playhouse by Matt Karris, who, with the show’s leading character and narrator, shares a passion for filmmaking, this “Rent” reminds me more than earlier incarnations that the one-word title has double meaning. Sure, the landlord wants his former roommates to pay up or get out. But rent also means tearing things apart, including lives and relationships.

Aside from the poverty of these struggling young artists and misfits in the East Village’s Alphabet City (Brittany Loesch’s ramshackle urban set), AIDS is rending their lives asunder. Angel, a drag-queen percussionist affectionately played by Andres Quintero, is dying of full-blown AIDS. He’s cared for by his partner, Tom Collins (Jared Dixon), an NYU tutor who’s beaten up for his sexuality. Roger and his roommate, Mark, the wannabe filmmaker, are freezing on Christmas Eve in a heretofore rent-free apartment. Played with the gloom of ineffectual denial by Anthony Festa, guitar-playing Roger and his off-and-on girlfriend, Mimi, are both HIV positive at a time when the disease was only marginally treatable. Mimi, a stripper played with ferocious intensity by Michelle Veintimilla, is better at denial, though heroin has left her in worse shape.

Maureen (Natalie Storrs), a bisexual performance artist who dumped Mark to be with Joanne (feisty Moeisha McGill), stages a protest against Benny (Kyle Robert Carter), the landlord who reneges on his rent-free promise. Mark films the happening in hopes of selling it to an alternative news outlet. As the least dysfunctional one in the bunch, Mark is played with an even keel by Jeremy Greenbaum.

But it’s the ladies who steal their scenes — Storrs in Maureen’s defiant “Take Me as I Am” and Veintimilla’s Mimi in “Without You,” sung with Festa. However, the volume distorts the vocals on some higher registers. Andrew Austin’s band sets a torrid pace, though it takes its time on the “Chorus Line”-style delivery of the signature “Seasons of Love,” choreographed by Gerry McIntyre.

Judging by the near-sellout opening-night crowd, “Rent” will pay off as The Gateway’s summer season opener.

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