Powerful Musical ‘Rent’ Takes Stage
Portland ensemble shows love for iconic play
Darleen Ortega | 6/13/2022, 11:19 a.m.
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:
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.