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"Rent" Finally Makes it to San Francisco

A theatre review of the San Francisco debut run of the Broadway musical, "Rent."

Every so often the American musical is blessed with a work or a composer or both that breaths new life into the art form. These occurrences have made the musical a continually evolving, yet immediately recognizable form of entertainment. And Rent is just such an event.

When it burst onto the scene in 1996 it created a sensation, moving quickly from a small Off-Broadway theatre to Broadway where it collected a formidable array of awards including a Pulitzer and several Tonys. Now San Francisco can see what all the fuss is about at the Golden Gate Theatre.

For once, a show lives up to the hype.

Rent's creator, Jonathan Larson, who died the night the show opened Off-Broadway, populated his show with vividly real characters and created moments ranging from the wickedly funny to the emotionally draining. Based loosely on Puccini's opera, La Boheme (itself based on a novel by Henry Murger, Scènes de la vie de Bohème), Rent follows the lives of several young people, mostly struggling artists, in contemporary New York City.

Where Puccini's opera has the specter of tuberculosis hanging over it, in Rent, AIDS is the pervasive element. Larson managed to make the story fresh, new and entirely his own while still paying tribute to and remaining faithful to the spirit of Puccini's opera (he even gets in a reference to Murger). His score draws on various musical genre including rock, tango, jazz and gospel as well as musical theatre. Yet the result is anything by patchwork and has a distinctive, unified sound.

Most of the cast for the San Francisco run are superb, starting with Daphne Rubin-Vega's Mimi Marquez. Rubin-Vega originated the role and inhabits it so completely that hers will be a tough act to follow. Feisty, determined, vulnerable and needy, her Mimi lit up the stage with her "Out Tonight" and sears the senses with her "Without You".

Equally powerful, Dean Balkwill created an intense, poignant portrait as Roger Davis. Balkwill conveyed Roger's emotionally charged personality in a sharply etched performance and with a clear ringing tenor. Together, Balkwill and Rubin-Vega created an immediate and captivating rapport through the ups and downs of their volatile relationship.

Kamilah Martin as Joanne Jefferson, the A-type lawyer, and her lover, Maureen Johnson, played by Erin Keaney, also exhibited the kind of chemistry to make their tempestuous relationship both varied and believable.

In contrast to the high-conflict relationships between Roger and Mimi and between Maureen and Joanne, the relationship between Collins and Angel is one of continual giving and loving. As a modern-day Robin Hood, Collins, Mark Leroy Jackson added an aura of youthful optimism to the show. Collins maintains a positive attitude throughout Rent, despite a mugging, despite his poverty and HIV status--and Jackson never lets the optimism sound Pollyanna-ish or naive.

His lover, Angel Schunard, reinforces Collins belief in the goodness of men. Shaun Earl plays Angel with a winning blend of gentle tenderness and sassy street savvy. Earl never loses the person beneath Angel's outrageous behavior and drag wardrobe and emerges by the end of Rent as an inspiration to other characters as well as the audience. And the relationship between Angel and Collins acts as an ideal to which others aspire.

The one lead performance that failed to ignite or even coalesce into a character was Trey Ellett's Mark Cohen. Mark is the outside observer, serving both as participant and narrator to some extent. Ellett fails to define Mark or give him an inner life. Ellett also had trouble projecting vocally, with his soft-grained voice and lax diction.

The production for Rent creates a playing space rich in atmosphere and a visual complexity to compliment Larson's vibrant score. Set designer Paul Clay, costume designer Angela Wendt, lighting designer Blake Burba and sound designer Kurt Fischer all worked closely to provide a production that keeps the focus on the characters and situations. There's no need to resort to flashy special effects and spectacular scenery when you have characters of substance and a first-rate score. The design team understood this and have done a brilliant if self-effacing job.

Director Michael Greif uses Clay's set to maximum effect with a minimum of props. A few tables and chairs serve to provide the majority of set pieces. Again, the focus is kept sharply on the characters that inhabit the world Larson created.

Rent was long past due to come to San Francisco; this production has been worth the wait.

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