Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

National Tour
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

The Cast of Rent
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Has it really been more than two decades since Rent burst on the musical theatre scene, upending many of the conventions of the form while simultaneously celebrating it via its homage to Puccini's opera La Bohème? Spoiler alert: it has. To be precise, it has been 23 years and 48 days since the show opened at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre, following a sold-out run at New York Theatre Workshop. In that time the show has become a bit of a phenomenon. Not quite as big perhaps as, say, The Lion King or Wicked, and certainly nothing like the theatrical tsunami that is Hamilton (still playing at the SHN Orpheum Theatre), but it still has a legion of devoted fans, many of whom were in attendance at the Friday night opening of a brief tour stop at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, and gave the show a rousing reception.

With good reason, for despite its age (and the now-antique elements that firmly establish it as taking place in the late 1980s/early 1990s—pay phones, answering machines, HIV/AIDS as a near-certain death sentence, New York's Alphabet City as a crime-ridden ghetto instead of the more gentrified neighborhood it has become), Rent still packs a powerful punch, with music that is rhythmic and memorable and a cast of characters addressing timeless challenges: love, betrayal, greed, conflict between art and commerce, and the risks inherent in following one's dreams.

Rent takes place, for the most part, in and around a warehouse loft being squatted in by Mark (Logan Marks), a budding filmmaker, and Roger (Joshua Bess), a wannabe songwriter and musician. Their building is owned by former roommate and friend Benny (Xavier McKinnon), who has reneged on his promise to let Roger and Mark live rent-free, and is threatening to evict them unless they pay the last year's rent. As an incentive, he cuts the power to the building, which jumpstarts the show as the band tears into the first big number of the night, the titular "Rent." Soon, friends, lovers and ex-lovers gather around Mark and Roger to fight, not just against Benny, but against commercialism, gentrification, HIV, mortality, and for art, love, life, and the family they have made for themselves.

Rent has thrived in part because—despite the many depressive elements of the story—it delivers a message of hope and resolve in the face of overwhelming odds. It's not just HIV that stands in their way, it's a system that works against them, it's the long odds that face any artist trying to find an honest expression of themselves that will resonate with an audience, and the ordinary pains of life and the many small disappointments and petty trials that come to most people, but especially those who attempt to live "la vie bohème."

Despite all the curves life has thrown at them (and the unwise choices some of them make), the characters in Rent attempt to approach life in a way that is almost Buddhist. "There is no future," they sing, "there is no past." There is, in fact, "no day but today," one of the show's signature lines, and one that is perfect for today's audiences who may embrace the contemporary take on that sentiment: YOLO—you only live once.

But that's easier said (or sung) than done. Life can be messy, chaotic even, with unexpected hurdles popping up along your path. Staying in the moment and remaining true to yourself and your dreams requires a constant struggle, and it's inspiring to watch a group of characters—even if they are unlike you in many ways—embrace that struggle. Even when they lose, it's not for lack of trying.

It's also inspiring to watch this talented cast living out their dreams as performers, and the energy and commitment they put into their work is clear in virtually every moment of this production. Their joy in performing is infectious, and director Evan Ensign has created an environment in which all are able to shine their own light. The set (by Paul Clay) is appropriately chaotic and colorful, true to a downtown, DIY, jury-rigged aesthetic, and the band led by Matthew DeMaria fills the cavernous Golden Gate Theatre with a huge sound that belies their small (just five pieces) size.

This non-Equity touring company is in town for only a brief run, so if you love Rent—or have never seen it—you have only a few chances to catch a terrific production of this groundbreaking show before they pack up their tent and move on to the next town.

Rent, through June 23, 2019, at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Shows are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays-Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 6:30pm, with matinees Saturdays at 2:00pm and Sundays at 1:00pm. Tickets range from $56 -$225, and are available by calling the box office at 888-746-1799 or by visiting For more information on the tour, visit

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