Portland ensemble shows love for iconic play
Portland Center Stage presents "Rent" the iconic musical about love in various configurations set among artists ravaged by addictions, AIDS and homelessness. Now playing through July 10 on the U.S. Bank Main Stage at the Armory. PHOTO BY JINGZI ZHAO/COURTESY PORTLAND CENTER STAGE
For some audience members, a revival of “Rent” sells itself—the iconic musical is a cultural phenomenon, and its many ardent fans will jump at the opportunity to see it where it belongs, live on stage. No cast recording can offer the experience of seeing a group of performers sing and dance their hearts out in this musical about idealism, and for all the flaws in the material, there aren’t many shows that reward open-hearted performance like this one does.
Fans of the show will no doubt love Portland Center Stage’s production, which benefits from direction and choreography by Chip Miller and the work of a solid cast whose members clearly relish the opportunity to bring it their all. They hew to the energy of creator Jonathan Larson’s original material, with nary a wink or ironic glance. But for those who aren’t already bought in or who brace a little at the clumsiness of the show’s plotting and resolutions, a little background may enhance enjoyment of the experience.
It’s the work of a budding playwright, Jonathan Larson, who had been striving toward a break as a musical theater artist when he created “Rent” and who died tragically just as the show was about to open. Taking the opera La Boheme as its inspiration, the musical is set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the late 1990s when AIDS and homelessness was ravaging the city, and follows the travails of a group of artists ravaged by poverty, addiction, and illness and fighting to hold on to love in various configurations. (The documentary “No Day But Today: The Story of ‘Rent’,” available on YouTube, offers excellent background on how the musical came to be and its cultural significance.)
I’ll confess that I’ve never been quite won over by this show—my own unpopular (though by no means unique) opinion is that Larson had some maturing to do as a writer. I’ve struggled a bit with the thinness of the two male characters at the center of the action—Mark (Jeremiah Alsop), who is Larson’s stand-in and functions as a sort of guide through the story, doesn’t contribute much, and I don’t think the show justifies the attention it gives to Mark’s friend Roger, a struggling musician who has a mercurial relationship with the much more compelling Mimi, a dancer whose attraction to Roger never makes sense to me. This production didn’t solve that dilemma, in my mind; Nyla Sostre is impressive and quite compelling as Mimi, but Johnny Newcomb as Roger isn’t a match for her in charisma.
The real standouts in the cast are Will Wilhelm as Angel and Delphon “DJ” Curtis, Jr. (who recently wowed Portland audiences in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) as Tom Collins. Wilhelm brings an acrobatic joy to the aptly-named Angel—she is the character most adept at eliciting joy and in bringing out the best in the members of this community of artists, and Curtis’s Tom Collins exudes the single-mindedness of someone who knows he has encountered a celestial being no matter whether anyone else realizes it with him. Kailey Rhodes, too, dazzles as Maureen—she never stops performing, almost seems drunk on it, which may not make her a reliable romantic partner but keeps your attention fixed on her.
The power of “Rent,” though, is in the ensemble, and this ensemble exudes its love for the material and for each other. Director Miller was drawn to resonances in our current cultural circumstances; those certainly exist, though I don’t find “Rent” to be the satisfying salve that others do. That said, it has its moments, and they are mostly when the ensemble summons all their collective joy and idealism to sing and move in harmony. In a story about young people scrambling to stay alive and sheltered and to hold on to love, this cast makes the most of what Larson gives them: an opportunity to embody hope and love in the midst of messiness. And 25 years after its debut, that holds up well.
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.