THE 1996 MUSICAL Rent is at once relatively recent and supremely dated. Born of grunge-era values, New York's drag culture, and the initial shock of the AIDS crisis, the show features idealistic "bohemians" slumming it in the East Village, pursuing their art, singing passionate songs about living in the moment, and having tortured love affairs—all lent maximum melodrama by the fact that more than half of the main characters have AIDS.
Stumptown Stages' current production of Rent adheres to the aesthetic of the period—early '90s hipster—without seeming to realize that it's a period piece. No attempt is made to recontexualize, or even contextualize, the show's aesthetic and themes—costumes are borrowed straight from the original Broadway production, and most of the performances take strong cues from the original cast recording.
A key character in Rent is Angel, a sassy drag queen whose AIDS-related death marks the show's shift from wacky bohemian fun times to Very Serious Business. Angel is played here by Tyler Andrew Jones, an actor who appears so young that I'm afraid this might be his first negative review. I'll try to be gentle: He's awkward in heels. He's awkward in general, in fact, with a sweet smile and low-affect delivery that lend him a likeable air while completely sabotaging the centrality of the character—it's impossible to credit this kid with providing sufficient emotional pull to keep the show's other characters in his orbit. Also problematic: newcomer Stephen Miller, as the tortured musician Roger. He looks the part and he acts the part—but this is a musical, and he's a long way from being able to sing the part.
It's unfortunate that these pivotal characters are so weak, because the rest of the cast ranges from competent to great, bringing a scrappy intensity onto Theater! Theatre!'s stage. There's much to like in the specifics of this production—the ensemble numbers in particular are tremendous in the tiny space. But the show is presented without a single nod to how dated it is, much less an attempt to reframe it. It's dismaying to see a show that was written as an effort to contemporize the musical presented here as just another period revival.