“Rent is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS….” –Jonathan Larson
It’s Christmas Eve, 1989, in a garret in the East Village. Roger (Johnny Newcomb) is writing a great song, his roommate Mark (Jeremiah Alsop) is making a movie. They are gathered around in illegal wood stove, and the rent is due, as former roommate and now the building’s owner Benjamin Coffin III, is quick to remind them. Roger is grieving for his girlfriend, who killed herself after testing positive for HIV; he’s positive too. Mimi (Nyla Sostre) comes knocking. She asks him to light her candle.
If this reminds one of Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera La Boheme, that’s because it’s supposed to. Jonathan Larson‘s Tony-winning, Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical Rent is onstage now at Portland Center Stage at the Armory. It’s a magnificent rock musical featuring a mix of talented locals along with out-of-state actors, directed and choreographed with precision, heart, and soul by PCS associate artistic director Chip Miller.
Benny Coffin is not only collecting rent from his hapless former roommates, whom he once promised would never have to pay him. He also wants to kick the homeless people out of a nearby parking lot he owns. This engenders a bit of resentment on the part of the homeless, and comes back to bite the rising real estate magnate. Meanwhile, love is in the December air. When Tom (Delphon DJ Curtis, Jr.) is mugged near the apartment, street drummer and drag queen Angel (Will Willhem) swoops in to help. Mimi is determined to get better acquainted with Roger, and Mark mourns the loss of his girlfriend Maureen (Kailey Rhodes) to a woman, Joanne (Ashley Song). Mark gives Joanne the goods on Maureen in “Tango Maureen”, Angel shows up in a very special Santa outfit, we finally get to meet Maureen. And then, as if that’s not enough, there’s the riot, populated by the cast and ensemble members Caitlin Brooke, Charles Grant, Sandra W. Lee, Alea Loren aka Church Girl, Claire Rigsby, Skyler Verity, A.D. Weaver, Austin Comfort, and Jessica Tidd.
It’s a complicated story in complicated times. Amid the comings together, fallings apart, and reunions, the illness and anticipated illness, poverty, the silly and serious behaviors, and living on the fringes, an unlikely grouping of people come together as friends and helpmates. Jonathan Larson’s book, music, and lyrics (with original concept and additional lyrics by Billy Aronson) make a stunning cultural statement. Rent enjoyed a 12-year run on Broadway, won Tonys, Drama Desk Awards, and the Pulitzer in 1996, and has as much to say to us today as it did 26 years ago.
Britton Mauk’s scenic design evokes the Manhattan landscape, with climber-friendly uprights suggesting tight streets and tall buildings. Dominique Fawn Hill’s costumes offer a beautiful melange of Bohemian funk. Musical arrangements are by Steve Skinner, with music supervision and additional arrangements by Tim Weil. Other creative team members include dramaturg Kamilah Bush; music director and conductor Eric Little; sound designer Sharath Patel; video designer Danny Lawrence; wig designer Jessica Miller; associate director Phil Johnson; associate lighting designer James Mapes; stage manager Janine Vanderhoff; assistant stage manager and intimacy coordinator Amanda Vander Hyde; production assistant Dana Peterson; dance and fight captain Clair Rigsby.
Rent rocks the Armory stage through July 10. Tickets are available here.