ashland.news
June 21, 2024

Review: Magically, OSF makes ‘Rent’

OSF's production of "Rent" is jam-packed with memorable moments and thrilling tunes. OSF photo by Jenny Graham
July 23, 2023

Nothing but vibrant survivors aboard this story arc

By Lucie K. Scheuer for the Rogue Valley Times

What happens if you take a late 1980s rock opera based on Puccini’s 1890s “La Boehme,” focus it on the gritty but artistic counterculture of New York’s Lower East Side during the height of the AIDS epidemic, and plunk it onto Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre stage in Ashland in 2023? Magic. That’s what happens.

“Rent” is the musical wonder born from decades of Broadway’s best musical influencers and revolutionary renderings: Stephen Sondheim’s musings on the human condition; “Hair’s” obstreperous protests, nose-thumbing to the “man” and righteous indignation toward just about everything; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hypostatical questioning of Jesus’ divinity. And yet “Rent” doesn’t borrow from any of those compositions so much as it is inspired by them. It is its own masterwork, a myriad of musical genres and styles. It plays melodies against each other in perfect counterpoint, while it all coalesces into this anguished but vibrant musical story of disenchanted but hopeful youths caught in the middle of a pandemic. Sound familiar? It is.

Ironically, playwright Jonathan Larson, “Rent’s” brilliant book writer, composer and lyricist, died just before the operetta had its debut, but he must have known it would stick its landing. Not only did it win four Tonys, but it also grabbed a Pulitzer along the way. Based on his own experiences as a struggling artist, Larson created songs that feel extemporaneous — yet are so seamlessly crafted — that for nearly three hours they carry the story and characters along like a wave — driven by desire, ambition, longings for connection, exasperation and love.

Brandon G. Stalling, left, Sophia Byrd and Alexis Tidwell star in “Rent,” on stage now at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. OSF photo by Jenny Graham

This music is accompanied by some of the most wonderful performances one can imagine. Or as this production’s incredibly talented director, Tiffany Nichole Greene, says, “They run on stolen joy and borrowed time.” And, once this train gets up to full speed, you are not getting off.

Kudos to Greene, who has taken the extraordinarily difficult task of coordinating a creative team of designers — including scenic, Arnel Sancianco; costumes, Ari Fulton; music, Dolores Duran-Cefalu; choreography, Jon Rua; sound, Val Turos; lighting, Jason Lynch; and projection, Katherine Freer — and an acting ensemble worthy of Broadway and made it all work. Program credits for this production read like the credits from “Star Wars.” They go on forever.

These are the millennials. Breaking through self-doubt, embracing all kinds of expression — physical, social, sexual and intellectual. Surrounded by poverty, homelessness (at Christmas no less), yet trying to make the best of it. Artists suffering for their art, budding adults wanting to make a difference, wanting to leave their mark on the world before it’s too late. We get this in the celebrated number “Seasons of Love.”

The scaffolded stage is set: “We begin on Christmas Eve, with me, Mark, my roommate Roger,” explains Mark Cohen, a filmmaker. “We live in an industrial loft on the corner of 11th Street and Avenue B. It’s the top floor of what once was a music publishing factory. Old rock-and-roll posters hang on the walls. They have Roger’s picture … We have an illegal wood-burning stove … All our appliances are plugged into one thick extension cord which snakes its way out a window. Outside a small tent city has sprung up. Inside it’s freezing because we have no heat.”

Brandon G. Stalling, left, Ian Ward, and ensemble perform a scene in OSF’s production of “Rent.” OSF photo by Jenny Graham

Mark is played by Brandon C. Stalling, who does a fine job of convincing us he is recording all this for posterity. His character Mark, however, keeps boasting that he “shoots without a script.” He seems proud of this, but he’s uncertain about what he’s shooting.

Mark’s roommate Roger, a lost and downtrodden musician, has AIDS and is determined to write one last memorable song, which he explains in “One Song Glory.”

The deets
“Rent” runs through Oct. 14 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. Tickets are $35 to $75. Group discounts available.
Showtimes, ticket prices and further information is available online at osfashland.org or call 800-219-8161. 

Roger, played by Ian Ward, gives a strong voice to Roger’s dilemma and desperation. Mimi appears in the loft looking for shelter from the cold. She’s an exotic dancer from the Cat Scratch Club and a drug user who falls hard for Roger. Daria Pilar Redus as Mimi tears it up with the number “Out Tonight.” The credits state this is her OSF debut. This is one way to start, by setting the stage on fire. This Mimi is no timid seamstress, that’s for sure.

Mark and Roger are in danger of losing their loft because their former roommate, slickly played by Devin L. Roberts, has married into money and wants to buy the building as a virtual interactive studio. That’s when their friends who are also lovers, Maureen Johnson and Joanne Jefferson, persuasively played by Alexis Tidwell and Sophia Byrd, come on the scene. Determined to save the loft, they plan a protest near tent city. There’s cool Tom Collins, “a genius vagabond anarchist who ran naked through the Parthenon.” Chuckie Benson introduces Collins as charismatic and convincing as a grieving lover. Collins hooks up with a drag queen named Angel, who also has AIDS, played by Z Infante. Infante plays this part, and the archetype of a spirit with a higher calling, movingly.

There is a question about the conclusion of this masterwork. Over the years, a number of critics and writers have suggested that Larson probably should have trusted Puccini and stuck to Puccini’s ending. And if there is a marginal downside to this work, these critics were probably right. That being said, it is not to be missed. A great story, eclectic score and ensemble cast await you.

Could a 25-year-old musical that focuses on the AIDs epidemic of the ’80s be outdated? No more than Puccini’s opera about a woman with TB over 100 years ago. Great works stand the test of time.

Reach Ashland-based writer Lucie K. Scheuer at LucieScheuer19@gmail.com. This review first appeared in the Rogue Valley Times.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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