Bristol Riverside Theatre’s current production of Rent marks the fifth I’ve reviewed, more than any other show, including Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. Since the second Clinton presidency, Philly has hosted the original national tour, many local productions, and a 2009 reboot featuring its original Broadway leading men, Adam Rapp and Anthony Pascal, and “Seasons of Love” soloist Gwen Stewart.
Bristol’s entry isn’t the best Rent I’ve seen, but it might be the best production I’ve seen there, and that’s not meant as a backhanded compliment.
Despite its pedigree (four Tonys, a Pulitzer) and legendary backstory (its young creator, Jonathan Larson, died of a heart ailment the night before its Off-Broadway opening), Rent is unusual for Bristol, which favors All-American classics but has gently leaned toward the topical in recent seasons. Theirs is a scrappy version, maybe closest to the experience of seeing it in a workshop during those heady days of ACT UP and the Clintons. And this may be many Bristol patrons’ first encounter with the musical — loosely based on Puccini’s La Boheme — which follows a group of squatters with varying degrees of HIV status, drug addiction, romantic entanglement, and creative impulses.