SHNSF's 20th Anniverary Tour of RENT Amazes
SHNSF's Golden Gate Theatre was electric with excitement as the house filled to capacity for the 20th-anniversary tour of Rent. It was in 1996 that the raging, power-packed, raw-energy rock musical first found its way to the stage and it promptly changed the Broadway landscape forever. Playwright, music and lyrics by Jonathon Larson brought the era of performance art and starving artists, rampant gentrification, police brutality and AIDS to Broadway at a time when the entire country was struggling to make sense of the epidemic; even as infected individuals fiercely determined not to let the disease define them.
The transcendent message of love in the face of fear brought hope and light and soon enough acclaim. Sadly, Larson died right before the show's off-Broadway debut, but his soaring spirit lives on in this fantastic company of creative souls who make up the 20th-anniversary cast of Rent. Playing now through June 23, Rent captures the lives of a multiracial, LGBTQ family of friends grappling with how to stay true to their creativity and pay the rent, while simultaneously coping with romantic entanglements and living with what was, at that time, the death sentence of AIDS. And it is not to be missed.
The show is set in Lower Manhattan's East Village on Christmas eve. We meet scarf-draped, bespectacled Mark Cohen (Logan Marks) who tells the audience about the industrial loft that he and roommate and rock musician Roger (Joshua Bess) rent from their former roommate Benny (Xavier McKinnon). It's cold outside but almost as cold inside because poor and starving artists don't have enough money for luxuries like electricity.
To make matters worse, their former roommate Benny is about to evict them. He wants to turn the building and the lot next door into a high-tech cyber arts studio. Artists themselves -- Mark is an aspiring filmmaker and Roger plays electric guitar -- they rebel against being pushed out of their place.
Their dire straits are mirrored in all their friend's plights. They're all poor and most of them are struggling with AIDS just like Roger. When Roger meets new tenant, Mimi (Deri'Andra Tucker), he is immediately drawn to her, but what's the point when you're dying of AIDS? When she comes onto him, his angst is palpable. Tucker's velvety delivery of "Light My Candle" draws him in but he pushes her away. It won't be until he learns that she also has AIDs that he's able to let her in - but just a little. His anger and rage at the disease have left him defeated. He struggles to write one last song ("One Song Glory") but he can't.
Paul Clay's set design captures the cold desperation of the space and the tenants with his multi-level metal structure. Urban decay is evident everywhere you look. Jonathan Spencer's stark and garish lighting from the wings completes the picture. You can almost feel the cold.
When cross-dressings street-drummer Angel Schunard (Javon King) sees a hurt Tom Collins (Devinre Adams) on the street the attraction between the two is instantaneous. Collins is friends with Mark and Roger and the rest. Angel will soon become the heart of the group, facing fear and death with pure love. And if Angel represents the heart of the show, then Mark's former girlfriend Maureen (a lusty, red-headed Lyndie Moe), is the soul. Her Christmas Eve performance, set up hastily to protest Benny's evictions, brings down the house. (Audience participation includes moo-ing!) Maureen has a history with Mark. She left him for Joanne (Lencia Kebede) but even so, Mark is always at Maureen's beck and call. Mark tries to prepare Joanne for Maureen's true nature in the wonderfully comic "Tango: Maureen."
Interspersed throughout the show there are parents calling and leaving messages for their various adult children. We're left to wonder if their parents even know that their children have AIDS.
Ultimately there's no getting around the fact that almost everyone is dying. But the show's message resonates loudly amidst the fear: Live in the moment with love. As Mimi sings to Roger, "There's only this. Forget regret - or life is yours to miss...No day but today. But it is Rent's signature song "Seasons of Love" that is at once gut-wrenching and heartwarming. "How do you measure a year in the life? How about Love? Measure in Love. Seasons of love."