Review: Remarkable New Production of RENT Takes Up Residence at Anaheim's Chance Theater

Bold, smart, and wildly impressive, Chance Theater's vibrant new production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning fan fave is one of the best shows this theater has ever produced

By: Aug. 02, 2023
Review: Remarkable New Production of RENT Takes Up Residence at Anaheim's Chance Theater

Let me just declare this right off the bat: the brand new, explosively expressive production of Jonathan Larson's iconic, Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning 1996 rock opera RENT---now being staged at Chance Theater in Anaheim through August 20, 2023---is, without a doubt, one of the best, most entertaining stage musicals this small regional theater has ever produced.

Bold, smart, wildly impressive, emotionally stirring, and filled to the brim with detailed visuals and extremely talented cast members that would make even larger theater productions of this show envious, this vibrant new production of RENT is, to my delighted surprise, much more genuinely impactful than many previous iterations I've seen that went out on tour nationally.

Seriously, I spent most of the show's recent opening night performance in complete awe, with either a stunned, dropped jaw, donning a wry smile, or quietly wiping a tear or five from my eyes. Many of the musical performances were so incredible that I caught myself exclaiming "my gawwwd!" several times, vividly entertained.

Review: Remarkable New Production of RENT Takes Up Residence at Anaheim's Chance Theater
Gavin Cole and Luc Clopton. Photo by Doug Catiller.

So, is this production amazing because of Matthew McCray's distinctively intuitive direction that allowed for significant story beats and superb acting choices to be really punctuated in every scene? Is it because of Joe Holbrook's intelligently practical, realistically-detailed set design that, when paired with Zach Moore's creatively moody lighting and Nick Santiago's purposeful projections, create a believably alive environment filled with fun yet cleverly useful "Easter eggs" that also makes the best use of Chance Theater's smaller footprint?

Is it perhaps because of the dynamic---at times hypnotic---high-energy moves choreographed by Mo Goodfellow? Is it Bradley Allen Lock's 90's vintage-meets-21st Century costume fits that refreshingly blurs the line between yesterday and today? Is it the lively orchestral sounds produced by the show's house band under the direction of Lex Leigh? Or maybe it's the amazing, youthful ensemble cast that has been assembled for the show that are consistently giving it their all?

Well, my instincts tell me that it is, in fact, all these laudable elements coming brilliantly together to explain why this new staging of RENT is one of the most wow-inducing productions ever staged here at Chance. This is definitely a can't-miss event.

Very, very loosely based on Giacomo Puccini's classic opera La Bohème, RENT is---at least these days---a nostalgic yet still resonant revisit to New York's Lower East Side in the mid-1990's, where a close-knit collective of smart but struggling artist friends (and their acquaintances, lovers, and neighbors) pursue their challenging, creatively-rich lives while being low on cash and in constant danger of eviction or disease.

Review: Remarkable New Production of RENT Takes Up Residence at Anaheim's Chance Theater
Gavin Cole, Adam Leiva, and JoeJoe McKinney.
Photo by Doug Catiller.

On Christmas Eve, we meet the show's cast of artistic Bohemians.

First up, we are introduced to a pair of best friends/roommates who are illegally squatting in an abandoned former performance space-turned-makeshift artists' loft with stolen electricity. Constantly grappling with artistic pursuits and financial shortcomings, rock musician Roger Davis (the beautifully brooding Gavin Cole) and budding filmmaker Mark Cohen (the adorkably peppy Luc Clopton) are both experiencing a bit of artist's block, all while trying to stave off eviction by their former friend-turned-landlord Benny (Christopher D. Baker), who bangs on their door demanding the rent.

Benny tries to entice them with a proposal: He will agree to conveniently forgive the owed back rent if Mark and Roger help put a stop to the planned protest gathering of the neighborhood's artist and homeless dwellers in the vacant lot next to their building, being organized by Mark's outspoken performance-artist ex-girlfriend Maureen Johnson (Lily Targett).

Meanwhile, their close friend Tom Collins (the jovial JoeJoe McKinney) is getting mugged downstairs at a payphone (wow, remember those?!). Luckily, street musician---and accomplished gender-illusionist---Angel Dumott Schunard (the wonderful Adam Leiva, the show's absolute standout of a casting find) comes to his aid, and the two become instantly smitten with each other. They later discover that they both happen to be HIV-positive, a recurring ailment that becomes the overarching phantom menace hovering and threatening every character in the show.

And speaking of being HIV-positive, back at the loft, Roger struggles with writing "One Great Song." Apparently, the guy has become a hermit, not having left their loft in six months as he is still haunted by the suicide of his ex-girlfriend who "gave" him his unfortunate HIV diagnosis.

Suddenly, Mark and Roger's downstairs neighbor, seductive exotic dancer Mimi Marquez (the incredible Lena Ceja) slithers in, asking to have her candle, um, lit during a blackout. Roger is understandably enchanted, but is sort of turned off by Mimi's seemingly messy, "addictive" personality. Will this temptress be his muse or his downfall?

Review: Remarkable New Production of RENT Takes Up Residence at Anaheim's Chance Theater
Lily Targett and Frankie Ripley. Photo by Doug Catiller.

Elsewhere, Mark somehow finds the patience to help his ex-girlfriend Maureen's new girlfriend Joanne Jefferson (the terrific Frankie Ripley) repair the apparently broken sound system currently being set up for that evening's protest gathering---starring Maureen. Hilariously, the two discuss the mutual sacrifices they must endure and the red flags that they've run into while being in a relationship with Maureen.

In between scenes with the main cast of characters, the audience gets to witness several varying vignettes showing many different corners of life in the Alphabet City---from an HIV-positive support group meeting at the local community center, to the post-protest celebration of "La Vie Bohème" at the local hangout, the Life Café.

Collectively, the characters---both main and periphery---all engage in their own tug-of-war with the demands of an inescapable capitalist society that often works against their wishes and desires to live a free artist's life. Sometimes, that life, sadly, includes a few breaks for a dose of AZT (at the time, the new revolutionary "cocktail" of meds keeping many with HIV and AIDS surviving).

As beloved RENT is to many---particularly to those in my age group when the musical first rose to prominence---Larson's final musical theater masterpiece is, of course, still far from perfect, even though it, overall, packs a very strongly-felt emotional wallop. But even after umpteenth viewings of the show both in big and small scale, I have always felt much of the musical to contain many jumbled, narratively chaotic moments that feel like unfinished, filler scenes disguised as serious "artsy" moments.

Review: Remarkable New Production of RENT Takes Up Residence at Anaheim's Chance Theater
JoeJoe McKinney (center) and the cast of Chance Theater's RENT.
Photo by Doug Catiller

Is it far-fetched to speculate that if Larson had not passed away so suddenly at the age of 35 of an aortic aneurysm just after RENT's final off-Broadway dress rehearsal, that, perhaps, some of the show's fixable elements would have been altered eventually, especially by the time it reached its Broadway debut? I guess we will never know.

But, here's the kicker for me: I have to say, those moments of chaos don't feel as prominent in Chance Theater's production, somehow. In fact, I never once felt their presence at all, to my smiling, delighted surprise.

For me, this production of RENT feels much more narratively cohesive and unambiguous as it is powerfully stirring than previous productions I have experienced. Perhaps the harmonious blend of this creative team's intelligent stagecraft and this ensemble's spectacular performances just gelled together well.

Or maybe the production's forced close proximity to the audience automatically makes the production, by fortuitous coincidence, a relatively immersive one---with characters emoting and vocalizing deeply-felt situations mere inches away from the nearest theatergoer (there is even a moment when a few lucky audience members are invited to sit table-side at the Life Café!)

Kudos, then, to director McCray and this impressive ensemble for creating so many resonating, beautiful bits of theatrical magic.

And, as expected, I truly loved many of the show's signature musical moments, from the cheeky fun of "Tango: Maureen" (Clopton and Ripley are just darling), "Over the Moon" (Targett slaaayed this one), and "Today 4 U" (seriously, where did you guys find Leiva---he is amazing), to the devastating, tear-inducing heartbreak of "Will I?" in the first act, and "I'll Cover You (Reprise) in the second act (with touching vocal work on the latter from McKinney)."

Other highlights include Targett and Ripley's "Take Me Or Leave Me," a fiercely delivered duet that finds both ladies jockeying to be Queen of the power vocals, and "You'll See" featuring buoyant vocals from the male leads.

Review: Remarkable New Production of RENT Takes Up Residence at Anaheim's Chance Theater
Luc Clopton. Photo by Doug Catiller.

Particularly impressive is Ceja's gorgeous singing voice (filled with divalicious riffs) in her naughtily-tinged "Light My Candle" and "Out Tonight" and, later, her stunning work in "Without You" with partner Cole. Cole himself, equipped with soulful rock vocals, also made his "One Song Glory" a memorable standout, as is his awesome group collab with Clopton, McKinney,  and Baker in "What You Own."

The entire company really comes to vibrant life in "La Vie Bohème." And, of course, the performance of RENT's rousing, most familiar anthem "Seasons of Love" is just outstanding in this production (shoutout to featured soloist Autumn Kirkpatrick for her gospel riffs).

In the spirit of full disclosure, I do have to admit sheepishly that although RENT continues to be somewhat of a cultural phenomenon that still induces rabid fandom amongst many fans of musical theater, I myself have never become as obsessed with the show as others have---both during its initial launch and, later, when it shot up to enjoy a subsequent stratospheric popularity.

I do, however, continue to deeply love much of the music, and have been touched by many of its still relevant, groundbreaking messages, specifically those directly related to LGBTQ+ issues (I lost a close relative to AIDS a year before the show came out, so RENT's central motif still has a devastating place in my heart).

Review: Remarkable New Production of RENT Takes Up Residence at Anaheim's Chance Theater
Adam Leiva, JoeJoe McKinney, and Luc Clopton.
Photo by Doug Catiller.

But, I have to say… somehow Chance Theater's production turned me into a fanatic convert---because in this production, I have been able to newly discover nuances and specific story points that I never really absorbed before or never affected me emotionally before. Perhaps it's because I'm a little older now and feel a bit more nostalgic for the era depicted in this show.  But I believe it is because this production gives the show a genuinely fresh, renewed perspective, that's part nostalgic artifact blended with part cleverly-reconstructed musical, now bathed in reflective, modern sensibilities. And with this phenomenal cast performing the heck outta these iconic songs, this production of RENT could make a rabid fan out of you, too.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter / Instagram / Threads: @cre8iveMLQ.

Photos from Chance Theater's production of RENT by Doug Catiller.


Chance Theater's Production of Jonathan Larson's RENT continues on the Cripe Stage through August 20, 2023. Directed by Matthew McCray and featuring musical direction by Lex Leigh and choreography by Mo Goodfellow.

A special LGBTQIA+ Community Night performance will be held on Friday, August 4, 2023 starting at 7 pm.

Chance Theater is located in the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, CA 92807. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit



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