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'Rent' is powerful - still relevant

Theatre in the Grove's production 'loud, edgy, sometimes raucous'


COURTESY PHOTO - The set for 'Rent' was ideal, said News-Times reviewers.More than once Saturday night I had to remind myself that I was sitting in a community theater in Forest Grove. TITG’s production of “Rent” is that good. Author Jonathan Larson’s rock musical, loosely based on the Puccini opera La Bohème, is not for the faint of heart — it’s loud, edgy, sometimes raucous and filled with characters whose lives seem to run the gamut from merely awful to truly tragic.

Producing it in a smaller community means that moms and dads, sons and daughters who may not usually use that kind of language (or wear those clothes) have to overcome their inhibitions, leave Forest Grove behind, and throw themselves into Larson’s dark vision of New York City’s East Village, circa 1990. Neither the show itself nor this production is perfect, but suggestions that “Rent” is somehow outdated are shortsighted.

Artistic integrity versus crass commercialization? Check. Rent control and broader issues of social and economic injustice? Check, check. Addiction? Check. HIV? Still check. Gay/lesbian/trans? Did you miss the hoopla about Pacific University’s first all-gender bathrooms? The show can be viewed as a reminder of where we have been, a celebration of how far we’ve come, and an illustration of how far we still need to go to achieve a truly humane society.

The show starts out fast, so a little preliminary guidance is in order: we are watching a group of starving artists over a one-year period in the early 1990s. It’s Christmas Eve in the East Village. Filmmaker Mark (Travis Patterson) and songwriter/musician Roger (Jonathan Swartout) are squatting (and freezing) in a derelict apartment owned by their former friend Benny (Tanner Norbury), who is trying to collect rent for the entire last year. Friend Tom (Jared Warby), a philosophy professor and anarchist, is mugged on the way to visit, and he is helped by drag queen Angel (Tyler Oshiro). Mark is miserable — his girlfriend, performance artist Maureen (Alison Luey), has dumped him for lawyer Joanne (Lalanya Gunn). Neighbor and exotic dancer Mimi (Cassandra Pangelinan) wanders in and tries to start a relationship with a reluctant Roger.COURTESY PHOTO: WARD RAMSDELL - Jonathan Swartout (Roger), Tyler Oshiro (Angel) and Travis Patterson (Mark) perform their parts in Rent.

Of the eight main characters, four are HIV positive, one is bisexual, three are gay, and four are straight. Yes, it’s complicated — but as long as you pay attention, the story tells itself quite nicely, loose ends are tied up, and in the end love may not conquer all, but at least it provides a framework on which the characters can construct their lives.

While all of the leads are pretty strong, the cast feels uneven — not because of obvious weaknesses, but because of the overwhelming strength of a few performances. Pangelinan’s “Mimi” is a knockout. She is beautiful, her expressive eyes riveting, and her dancing is suggestive, agile, physically daring, and a sheer pleasure to watch.

Luey’s “Maureen” reveals a seemingly limitless versatility as an actor and a vocalist — she is hilarious in “Over the Moon,” and “Take Me Or Leave Me,” her duet with Gunn, is simply exquisite.

However, there are two real stars of this particular production. One is Oshiro, who has the audience eating out of his hand from the minute “Angel” dons his zebra tights, and whose appearance at the end of Finale B brought Saturday night’s audience to its feet. The other is the entire vocal ensemble, guided by vocal director Justin Canfield.

The arrangements and timing are tight and powerful, and fill the theater with the show’s passion.

The set is perfect — designer James Grimes has created a near-dystopian ruin of brick and metal reminiscent of the finale in Oliver and able to accommodate the show’s scenic demands. Jess Reed’s costumes range from Benny’s yuppie scum look to Angel’s amazing holiday attire, with a suitable range of grunge and funk in between.

I was told after the performance that there were serious keyboard problems, but musical director Justin Canfield and the band managed to cover nicely. However, there are times that the balance is off, and solo vocalists fight to be heard over the sometimes very loud music.

After 23 years of involvement with Theatre in the Grove, director and Portland theater mainstay Darren Hurley is packing his bags and will be heading south for the spring (and beyond).

“Rent” may not be a perfect show, but it is a perfect vehicle for his area swan song — he has done a masterful job, and we will miss him until he comes to his senses and heads back home.

“Rent” runs through Sunday, March 13, at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Ave., Forest Grove, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

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