Considering it was one of the top 10 longest-running shows on Broadway, and on endless national tours for almost 15 years, I’m probably the rare theatergoer who hadn’t seen Rent before its current run at City Lights.

I don’t know what it was, but there was something about my preconceived notion of Jonathan Larson’s popular musical that turned me off. Of course, I knew the one song that everyone knows, “Seasons of Life,” and that was about it. With its “five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes” ruminations on life, the song was everything I dislike in musicals—pretentious, painfully earnest, mock-poignant. I just assumed the whole thing took that same tone.

I’m happy to say that finally seeing it has changed my mind. Despite tackling the AIDS issue, and being populated by responsibility-free boho types who might be seriously irritating to meet in real life, City Lights’ production of Rent is not overly self-important, preachy or any of other things that kept me away. On the contrary, it’s vibrant, absorbing and entertaining from start to finish. And despite the heaviness of its most dramatic moments, it’s also quite funny, satirizing its dreamy, self-absorbed artists at the same time it celebrates them.

More than most productions, this is a musical that clearly lives and dies by the talent of its cast (notice that all of the Broadway cast members who were available were asked to be in the film adaptation, which almost never happens). Director Lisa Mallette has assembled a fantastic ensemble, young and talented and buzzing with enthusiasm.

It’s hard to imagine another actor playing Mark, one of the central characters around which the story revolved, with more wry energy than Spencer Williams gives him here. Brian Palac is just moody enough as his housemate Roger, without overdoing it to the point where he loses the audience completely. He also has a great voice. Ditto for Megan Woodruff, who brings both strength and vulnerability to the part of Roger’s love interest Mimi.

And then there’s Angel. Clearly any attempt at Rent would be meaningless without a strong performance in this part. As the HIV-afflicted drag queen who is the emotional center for this group of starving New York artists, the role requires a certain amount of outlandishness, without ever losing sight of the compassion and selflessness at the character’s core.

Angel is perhaps the only one of the characters truly in touch with her humanity, yet she also has to be something a little more than human. The musical’s symbolism and thematic weight all center around her; it is, to be sure, a challenge. Luckily, Adam Barry is simply incredible in the part. His duet with Jami James as Tom Collins, “You Okay, Honey?” is a highlight; the chemistry between them is tangible throughout the high highs and low lows of the characters’ time together onstage.

The story is based on La bohème, though unless you already know Puccini’s opera well, there’s no need to look too deeply at the parallels. Rent follows its cast of characters over the course of a year; although really the first act is just one week from Dec. 24 to New Year’s Eve, while the second act blazes through months at a time to get to the next Christmas Eve.

Act 1 is the strongest, with the characters, who don’t have the money for last year’s rent, let alone this year’s, on the verge of being kicked out of their communal space by a new-money landlord who used to be one of them. There’s protest and hilarious performance art and lots of opportunities to sell out. Will anyone take them? Meanwhile, the characters weigh their various emotional baggage against the others’ as they run into and away from relationships.

I saw the City Lights production on preview night, which is always a little difficult to review in terms of technical issues. Though the band sounded great, there were many moments when their volume was way too high, drowning out the vocals. I trust these have been resolved. Otherwise, City Light’s Rent is an unqualified success.

Through Aug. 29
City Lights, San Jose