NEW YORK, Dec. 16 (UPI) -- Giacomo Puccini's "La Boheme," the operatic inspiration of the long-run Broadway hit musical "Rent," has come to Broadway in its original form in a totally dazzling production by Australian-born wunderkind director Baz Luhrmann.
Ensconced at the Broadway Theater for probably years to come, having opened with an advance ticket sale of $3 million, Luhrmann's "La Boheme" is staged uncut in Italian (with easily read English surtitles) with a cast of young unknowns who look and act like real Parisian bohemians and not like mature opera stars trying to appear young.
The only revisionist note is updating of the action from the mid-19th century to 1957 and insertion of timely references to Marlon Brando, Christian Dior and Rolls-Royces. Otherwise, Puccini himself wouldn't notice any real changes, except for the Dior-era costuming by Lurhrmann's wife, Christine Martin, who designed the entire production. This is still the composer's "La Boheme," a story of what it's like to be young, poor, artistic and in love.
The Luhrmann-Martin concept is completely different than the grandiose Franco Zeffirelli-designed "La Boheme" currently in the Metropolitan Opera's repertory - more cinematically intimate and more compelling. At all times it lets Puccini's throbbingly emotional score speak to the audience without the intrusion of spectacle, although it is a rich and, at times, busy production.
Luhrmann first staged "La Boheme" on commission for Opera Australia at the Sydney opera house in 1990, and the $6.5 million Broadway production had its tryout run in San Francisco earlier this year. It features three alternating multinational casts chosen in a worldwide search for which 3,000 singers auditioned.
This critic saw a performance starring Lisa Hopkins and Jesus Garcia as Mimi and Rodolfo and Chloe Wright and Ben Davis as Musetta and Marcello, all beautiful people with beautiful voices to match and a talent for totally natural acting that is more hip than self-consciously dramatic. This is in line with Luhrmann's desire to bring a different kind of audience to opera.
"We're looking for a nontraditional opera audience and even a nontraditional Broadway audience," the 40-year-old director said in an interview. "It's still Puccini's 'La Boheme,' but opera was the popular entertainment of its day. I see our mission as taking this work back to the broad audience for whom it was written."
He added that he was not deterred by the presence of Jonathan Larson's "Rent" on Broadway since 1996, since the show has Larson's music, not Puccini's, and the story -- based on Henry Murger's 1849 novel, "Scenes de la Vie de Boheme" -- has been totally transformed to fit the contemporary New York scene.
Since his first staging of "La Boheme" in Australia, Luhrmann has made a name for himself as a Hollywood film director and writer, bringing "Strictly Ballroom" to the screen, followed by "Romeo and Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge," which he also produced.
As of this minute, his many faceted talents are the hottest commodity on the Broadway scene.
Also hot is Luhrmann's wife, who won an Academy Award for the design of "Moulin Rouge." Her design for "La Boheme" involves several heavy structures on wheels that are maneuvered about the stage by a fully visible crew of roustabouts. These structures allow for quick scene changes and Nigel Leving's slanting light effects add to the cinematic quality of the production.
The bohemians' garret room looming above projections of computerized images of Paris rooftops, with a red-lighted "L'amour" sign (which also has appeared in all of Luhrmann's movies) on the cornice below, is a stunning conception, but even more interesting is the jigsaw puzzle scenic effect that comes together to form the Café Momus scene, as full of lighted street signs as Times Square.
The crowds of Christmas shoppers in the square in front of the café are a cross-cut of Parisians ranging from society ladies and their children to street vendors, soldiers, prostitutes, cross-dressers and even a midget. Luhrmann has given each a moment in the spotlight to come to life as an individual character rather than remain a faceless member of the crowd.
It's one of the most engaging scenes in the show, contrasting sharply with the simplicity of the romantic scenes between Mimi and Rodolfo when the music takes over from stage business. The rambunctious scenes of high jinks on the part of Rodolfo's garret-mates, sung by Davis, Daniel Okulitch, and Daniel Webb, bring high humor to the show and are heart-warming as well as heart-tugging.
Mimi's death in the final scene provides opera with its most tragic stage demise due to "consumption" since "La Traviata" and may not seem as dated for a show set in 1957 as one would think. Research by Luhrmann disclosed that it was in 1957 that France, belatedly compared to other Western industrial nations, started to give government inoculations against the disease, so that it was no longer a health issue after that date.