Out & About: 'Rent' a runaway hit at Lyric Music Theater in South Portland

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Jonathan Larson’s epic, groundbreaking adventure in musical theater, “Rent,” was a surprise sensational hit on Broadway in the 1990s. Equally surprising, “Rent” is the current sensational hit at Lyric Music Theater, a few hundred yards off Broadway in South Portland.

To rephrase an overused expression: Lyric’s superb version of this spellbinding rock opera isn’t your mother’s community musical production. “Rent” deals with sex, drugs and AIDS. It also deals with love and hope. And that’s its magical attraction.

There are three more outstanding musical events coming up in the next week. Two of them are scheduled for Friday. Portland Ovations is hosting an appearance by the Mark O’Connor Quartet. O’Connor is both a virtuoso violinist as well as a composer and all-around creative force.

Also on Friday, guitar virtuoso Keith Crook, a University of Southern Maine School of Music professor, will host the first of the school’s spring Spotlight Series.

Portland Symphony Orchestra has two visiting artists on March 8. The guest conductor will be German-born maestro Eckart Preu, and the guest performer will be violinist Tai Murray.


Edgy and energetic: those are the keywords behind Lyric Music Theater’s current offering of “Rent,” the 1996 Broadway hit.

With book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, “Rent” is a re-imagining of one of the most famous operas of all time: Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme.” Set in New York City in the early 1990s, “Rent” deals with a foursome of young bohemian artists and the multifarious love interests and other conflicts of their lives. “Rent” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as a slew of Tonys, including Best Musical.

Themes include a smorgasbord of art, sex and social protest, underscored by the dark and frightening themes of drug addiction and AIDS. It also revolves around the twin axes of love and hope. And that’s where the magical attraction of “Rent” lies.

Larson’s sung-through rock score makes “Rent” resemble an opera more than a traditional Broadway musical. It’s hardly the traditional fare of community theater companies such as Lyric Music Theater. Before I’d seen it, I would have ventured that the aesthetic values of “Rent” would prove to be way too far out for Lyric and its audiences.

But Lyric has shed its inhibitions in this superb community production, helmed by Michael Donovan. And audiences have warmed up quickly. It’s been a runaway hit with most performances selling out.

The cast is superb, but the top performer deserves special mention. Celeste Green, playing a drug-addicted stripper-dancer who is the the love interest of the principle male, is the unquestionable star. A petite and curvaceous bundle of visual excitement, sexual energy and mesmerizing emotions, Green’s broad acting vocabulary extends from strength to weakness and joy to pathos.

I also liked the romantic pairing of Tyler Beck, playing a flamboyant cross-dresser who dies of AIDS, and Thomas Jerome Smallwood, playing a tech-savvy philosopher.

Lyric Music Theater, 176 Sawyer St. in South Portland, presents “Rent” through March 5, with 8 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday. Call 799-1421 or 799-6509. (Because both performances are already sold out, watch for notices of a possible one-week extension.)

Mark O’Connor Quartet

Fierce fiddler, virtuoso violinist, masterful composer, fearless improviser and generous collaborator: these are among the phrases that have been applied to Mark O’Connor, who has forged a career for himself in musical genres as diverse as bluegrass, country, jazz and Americana-inflected classical. Hear a diverse sampling of his own compositions when Portland Ovations hosts a performance of the Mark O’Connor Quartet this Friday.

O’Connor’s work defies easy categorization; collaborations include icons of classical, country and bluegrass music. Fronting his eponymous foursome, this Friday’s program will include O’Connor’s String Quartet No. 2, subtitled “Bluegrass,” and String Quartet No. 3, subtitled “Old-Time.” Attendees will also hear selections from O’Connor’s Grammy Award-winning “Appalachian Waltz.”

The concert is slated for 8 p.m. March 4 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Keith Crook

What happens when a classical guitar player faces off against a dead composer? Great music. University of Southern Maine School of Music guitar prof Keith Crook showcases his own compositions, followed by Franz Schubert’s Quartet for Flute, Guitar, Violin and Cello in a concert this Friday.

“Crook vs. Schubert” is the title and it kicks off the USM School of Music’s spring Spotlight Concert Series. The guitarist will open the concert with a selection of his compositions including a piece commissioned by a production of Christopher Marlow’s “Doctor Faustus.”

Crook has selected Franz Schubert’s Quartet for Flute, Guitar, Violin and Cello for the second half of the concert, a piece written at the beginning of the 19th Century when the guitar was enjoying an uptick in popularity. Crook will be joined by Lisa Hennessy, principal flutist for the Portland Symphony Orchestra; Robert Lehmann, USM School of Music director of strings study and conductor of the Southern Maine Symphony Orchestra; and William Rounds, also a PSO member and USM School of Music prof.

Catch this concert at 8 p.m. March 4 at Corthell Hall on the USM Gorham campus. Call 780-5555.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

A German-born guest conductor from America’s West Coast will lead the Portland Symphony Orchestra in an all-German program on March 8. Eckart Preu, born in the former East Germany, currently serves as music director of the Spokane Symphony and the Stamford Symphony and has conducted at Carnegie Hall, the Sorbonne in Paris and the Jerusalem Symphony. Preu and PSO maestro Robert Moody have known each other since 1995 when they studied conducting together.

Felix Mendelssohn’s popular Violin Concerto in E Minor, the composer’s last large orchestral work, is the first of two large pieces on the program. The violin concerto’s popularity has continued to grow in modern times and is frequently performed.

The guest soloist will be Chicago-born Tai Murray, a rising star of her generation. Known for her beautiful, mature phrasing and graceful bow work, Murray began her professional career playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 9. Now 29, she has drawn attention as one of the few African-Americans to achieve stardom in classical music.

Murray was a 2004 Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient; her 2010-2011 season highlights include appearances with the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Philharmonic Staatsorchester of Mainz (Germany) and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

Anton Bruckner’s magical and wistful Symphony No. 4, subtitled “Romantic,” completes the evening’s program.

Catch the Portland Symphony Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. March 8 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Sidebar Elements

Mark O’Connor will appear Friday, March 4, at Merrill Auditorium in Portland under the aegis of Portland Ovations.