Review: RENT at Portland Center Stage

This production runs through July 10.

By: Jun. 16, 2022
Review: RENT at Portland Center Stage
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This is an embarrassing confession for a musical lover who was a teenager in the 90s and went to college in New York, but until watching Portland Center Stage's lively production, I'd never seen RENT (the mediocre movie doesn't count). The musical by Jonathan Larson, which is loosely based on Puccini's opera La Bohème, is about a group of young artists and friends in New York, struggling to make ends meet as capitalist interests threaten both their homes and workspaces, and AIDS/HIV impacts their community. The musical is set squarely in the 90s, but it's not a huge leap to today's social, economic, and health landscape.

RENT is a big, loud rock and roll musical and, at the same time, a reflection on the meaning and power of love in all of its many forms. In terms of material possessions, the members of the friend group have somewhere between not much and nothing, but they all have love. Despite the messy and sometimes tragic nature of the relationships, you can't help but feel like they've tapped into the only thing in life that means anything. The world would certainly be a better place if love were the measure of a life.

Portland Center Stage's production, directed by Chip Miller, hits the right balance between raucousness and intimacy. I found that I wanted to both burn something down (figuratively, of course) in protest of injustice and also hug everyone.

The beating heart of RENT is Angel, a non-binary character who exhibits a graciousness toward others that most people (myself included) can only aspire to (Angel was originally written as a drag queen, but since then perceptions of the character have changed). In this role, PCS could not have cast a better actor than WIll Wilhelm, whose extensive theatre credits include two seasons at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Wilhelm (who also gets all of the flashiest costumes) exudes enough warmth and love to fill the whole theatre. The world just seems a little brighter every time Wilhelm is on stage (lighting designer Jennifer Lin likely also has something to do with this).

Kailey Rhodes slays it as the performance artist Maureen with her killer pipes and infectious energy. Rhodes has been one of my favorite Portland actors since I first saw her in Artists Rep's 2017 production of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, and her turn in RENT only further cements that position. In addition to the main characters, this cast contains an incredible ensemble, in particular, Alèa Lorèn aka Church Girl and A.D. Weaver - they each have only one small solo, but those two solos were responsible for both of my eye-watering moments.

The one aspect of RENT that didn't work quite so well, at least the night I went, was the sound. Since there's no orchestra pit at PCS, the band is usually offstage in the wings. For this production, the wings are open so the band is onstage. I'm not sure if there were bad acoustics where I was sitting or if there were issues with the performers' mics, but the band was often so loud that the voices got completely lost. Hopefully that was a technical issue that has since been fixed.

Overall, RENT is one of those shows that every musical lover should see. Whether you're a Renthead or a first-timer, I'm betting you'll like the PCS production.

RENT runs through July 10. More details and tickets here:

Photo credit Jingzi Zhao/courtesy of Portland Center Stag