Like its inspiration, Puccini’s La boheme, this Broadway hit is a counterculture soap opera whose simultaneously stereotypical and archetypal crises are made credible and immediate by rousing songs and unshakable optimism in the face of death and despair. The inventively arranged score–by Jonathan Larson, who died at 35 just days before the show’s 1996 premiere–is a rapturous outpouring of catchy melodies and driving rhythms. Like George Gershwin, another brilliant tunesmith who died young, Larson draws on a wide range of genres (hard rock, power pop, soul, gospel, techno, reggae, rap) yet infuses the whole with a personality that’s uniquely his own. This portrait of the “Alphabet City avant-garde”–artists and activists squatting in East Village lofts while wrestling with drug addiction, AIDS, and the threat of gentrification–revolves around two roommates: Mark, a filmmaker whose performance-artist girlfriend has left him for another woman, and Roger, an HIV-positive rocker (and ex-junkie) who’s struggling to write one great song before he dies and to forge a meaningful relationship with the beautiful but strung out dancer Mimi. Some critics have derided Rent for glamorizing its gritty subject matter, but by pulling some of its punches the show becomes more accessible to family audiences–teenagers and their parents will have plenty of tough topics to hash out after a performance. Rent’s romantic view of “la vie boheme” is sincere and deeply felt, and this touring production’s strong, youthful ensemble is clearly invested in the material. Constantine Maroulis is exceptionally effective as Roger–simultaneously tough, vulnerable, diffident, and intense–and the onstage band is crisp and powerful. Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe, 312-902-1400. Through May 2: Thursday, 7:30 PM; Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 2 and 8 PM; Sunday, 2 and 7:30 PM. $21-$68.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joan Marcus.