Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's reviews of A Little Night Music and People Where They Are

The Cast
Photo by Tracy Martin
In January 1996, onto a Broadway stage burst a sexy, soaring musical daring to bestow unforgettable faces and personalities to seven artists struggling to survive not only their 1989 East Village poverty, but also the plague of AIDS/HIV that appeared ready to wipe out an entire generation. Almost three decades later, Jonathan Larson's Rent is no less relevant and timely than when it won multiple Tonys in 1996 (including Best Musical), as witnessed by the gripping, electrifying, magnificently directed and performed production now being staged by Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory. The characters and their stories that are largely based on Puccini's 1896 opera La bohème still bring laughter and tears in great quantity as they did in '96; but in February 2024, the musical is particularly apropos.

Lines like "How do you document real life when real life is getting more like fiction each day?" sound sadly too current. Scenes of wandering homeless folks wrapped in ragged blankets on dirty, drug-laden streets mirror the scenes too often seen in today's Bay Area cities large and small. The threat of young artists losing their funky, warehouse abode is right off the headlines of today's San Francisco Chronicle. The timing for this powerfully presented Hillbarn production is eerily perfect.

Not only was the dark subject matter of drug-using and desperately hungry street people along with the subject of AIDS and its effects on New York's artistic community startlingly bold when Rent premiered, but other new ground was broken at the time for American musicals. Its rock opera approach introduced numbers sounding much like the recitatives, arias, duets, and grand choruses of Puccini's original but were done with electronic pulses and pounding beats that introduced a new generation to classical themes in a way that they could hear and understand. Decades later, the songs have entered the Great American Songbook as classics and can be hummed and sung in well-known phrases by a generation that may or may not have even seen the original production in its twelve-year run on Broadway or in any of its national and international tours. "Seasons of Love," "Another Day," "La Vie Bohème," and "Take Me or Leave Me" (among others) and the ubiquitous "five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes" are now etched into our collective psyche forever.

Reed Flores directs this talented cast of fourteen with both exceptional sensitivity and eye-popping flair, fully utilizing the gritty, graffiti-adorned set designed by Steve Muterspaugh with its skeletal elevated walkways of metal. Pamila Gray's stunning lighting design overlays the floor-level stage with rippling, foreboding shadows of an inner city where one expects any moment to see a rat running across the dingy scene. Nolan Miranda's costumes cause us to shudder in pity at the street people's conditions while also to relish the edgy styles of the young New York artists/ performers and the outlandish boldness of a local drag queen.

With his camera ever in hand, aspiring documentarian Mark sets out to record a year in the life of his current and former artistic roomies and their lovers and friends. Dynamically voiced Edward Im is joined by his hand-pumping, foot-stomping cohorts in "Rent," all singing in loud, rambunctious voices multiple protests of their plights before concluding, "We're not gonna pay last year's rent, this year's rent, next year's rent ... 'Cause everything is rent."

Mark is still getting over his break-up with his old roommate and lover, Maureen (Danielle Mendoza), whose new girlfriend is Joanne (Solano Husband). The two rivals, Mark and Joanne, discover a surprising symbiosis of their common ills with the cheating but highly seductive Maureen as they dance with dramatic flair and sing with resounding voices, "Tango: Maureen." Maureen is arranging a Christmas Eve benefit show to protest eviction of the homeless from a vacant lot where another former roommate, Benny (Jamari McGee), wants to put up a new studio for artists.

The overpowering personality and attractive dynamism of Maureen eventually splashes into center-stage spotlight in full body gyrations and over-the-top poses as Danielle Mendoza knocks it out of the ballpark with her rendition of the children's rhyme "Hey Diddle Diddle" in her performance of "Over the Moon." As the year progresses and Maureen's relationship with Joanne begins to look like a yo-yo as they habitually attract and repel each other, the two actors pierce the air with voices that cut to the core with their sexual, sensual, and entirely sensational "Take Me or Leave Me." In doing so, they provide a key theme and message of Rent: "Take me for what I am, who I was meant to be."

Other pairs of lovers are equally impressive in the story's telling. Mark's roommate Roger–who is depressed about his HIV status and a girlfriend's recent suicide–repeatedly strums a few chords on his guitar in "One Song Glory," as Brandon Leland introduces us to his emotion-packed, soul-stirring voice while he searches for "one song before this virus takes hold ... one song to redeem this empty life."

Into Mark's life comes erotic nightclub dancer Mimi, shivering in the heatless, dark warehouse where they are both seeking refuge. Mimi is looking for a match to "Light My Candle" as well as Roger's warm body for comfort. With a voice that mixes teasing seduction, tongue-in-cheek humor, and starving desperation into striking performance, May Ramos' Mimi fails to win Roger this time and is not one to give up. The two struggle to find their relationship equilibrium and together deliver some of the evening's more heart-piercing, deeply emotional, and truth-telling numbers, like "Another Day" and "Without You," which are now iconic among the musical's fans.

A cross-dressing street drummer, Angel, racked by AIDS and hunger, finds an injured, mugged philosophy teacher on the street named Tom Collins, a friend of Mark and Roger. There is immediate attraction between the gentle man and the flamboyant drag queen, both of whom have AIDS. The story of their love and devotion is at the core of Rent's emotional pull and its message of unconditional love for all–no matter gender preference, race, sexual orientation, economic status, or even if dying from society's most shunned disease. Jesse Cortez (Angel) and Dedrick Weathersby (Tom) soar in one of the musical's best love songs, "I'll Cover You," in which Angel's tenor chords beautifully implore, "Live in my house, I'll be your shelter" and Tom in rich baritone replies, "Open your door, I'll be your tenant."

Musical director Diana Lee ensures the well-voiced cast beautifully blend in rolling harmonies during full ensemble numbers like "Seasons of Love" and rock the walls with the infecting beats of "La Vie Bohème." And as keyboardist, Diana Lee along with Mike Smith (guitar), John Doing (drums), and Paul Eastburn (bass) do great merit to the hard beats and moving melodies of Jonathan Larson's score.

Twenty-eight years have not aged-out this musical, whose 1989 setting, circumstances, and messages still resonate in 2024. Hillbarn Theatre's intimate setting gives audience members a much closer view of the brilliant script's power and punch than many of us have seen in the big Broadway and touring productions of the past. The memorable music, familiar lyrics, and heartrending yet inspiring stories are exceptionally revived in a not-to-be-missed Rent by this Hillbarn troupe of much talent.

Rent runs through February 25, 2024, at Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory, 1285 East Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City CA. For tickets and information, please visit or call 650-349-6411.