PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Hillbarn Theatre’s “Rent”— A Haunting Look Back at AIDS

By Joanne Engelhardt

If you’ve never seen Rent, Hillbarn Theatre’s rendering of what happened in the lower East Side of New York City in 1989 will give you goosebumps. It’s an authentic look at what young people had to deal with during that era. Not only is the cast filled with marvelous singers, but the entire set makes the audience feel as if they are living there, too.

As the audience walks into the theater, replicas of big 1989-era posters greet them, advertising the New York City Ballet, the Ramones, and several NYC theatre productions. After taking their seats, audience members discover they are entirely surrounded by the multilevel set designed by Hillbarn’s Artistic Director, Stephen Muterspaugh. It enables the cast to suddenly appear two feet away from you as they descend down one of the stairways or walk out onto the catwalks.

… “RENT” … will give you goosebumps!”

Director Reed Flores finds multiple ways to ramp up the agony and the ecstasy of the Rent storyline. First, he cast the excellent Brandon Leland as Roger, a songwriter/musician who is HIV positive. Roger lives with Mark (Edward Im), who gives a finely etched performance as a man whose big dream is to be a filmmaker one day.

It’s Mark who is determined to document the lives of his friends, to show how hopeless they feel – unemployed and uncertain about how they’ll find food, heat and a roof over their heads tomorrow. It’s a stark, realistic look at New York City’s struggling artists.

Though it takes place 35 years ago, it has some similarities with what’s happening today in San Francisco, Los Angeles and most large cities that have large numbers of people who can’t find jobs, a place to live and health care when they need it.

Arguably the most memorable character in Rent is Angel, a drag queen and the partner of Tom Collins (stalwart Dedrick Weathersby), an anarchist with AIDS. Tom has AIDS but still manages to teach philosophy part-time at New York University.

Jesse Cortez plays Angel in such a sweet, caring way, it’s hard not to be concerned for her. As written, Angel is a young drag queen who’s addressed as female when in drag and as male when out of drag.

It’s the grit and determination to try to hang on to much of their lives as best they can that makes Rent such a gut-wrenching experience. The story opens on Christmas Eve, with Mark and Roger attempting to keep warm in their apartment. Their heat has been shut off because they haven’t paid their rent. This is New York in December, so having no heat is a big deal.

Their landlord Benny (Jamari McGee), is their former friend, who has reneged on his promise to not require them to pay their back rent. Angel finds Tom Collins wounded in an alley and tends to him. They share the fact that they both have AIDS and discover they are instantly attracted to each other. Amazingly, all of this happens in the first half hour of the musical!

Director Flores selected at least half-a-dozen actors with big voices – voices that carry throughout the theater. Danielle Mendoza’s voice (as Maureen) is one. Both she and Solona Husband as her on-again/off-again lover, Joanne, have two of the best voices in Rent. Each also has one solo (“We’re Okay” for Joanne and “Over the Moon” for Maureen) in Act 1. Then they duke it out in a duet in Act 2’s “Take Me or Leave Me.”

Musical director Diana Lee conducts and plays keyboard with three other musicians (Mike Smith on guitar, John Doing on drums and Paul Eastburn on bass) from a tiny black pit at the back of the stage.

Though they are few and far between, there are some comic bits in Rent. One that got laughs at Hillbarn was persistent phone calls from anxious mothers calling to find out if their grown-up “children” are all right. Some of the calls are made by ensemble member Kristy Aquino who starts by begging them, as their mother, to call her back. Later, she calls to wish them “Merry Christmas.” Finally, out of frustration, she yells into the phone: “Pick up the phone, damn it!!”

The show’s wondrous musical score includes many songs that are part of our collective musical playbook. Who can forget “Another Day,” “La Vie Bohème,” “Take Me or Leave Me” — and the ubiquitous “Seasons of Love” with the wonderful line: “Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes?”

All of this – music, lyrics, book – came from the incredible mind of Jonathan Larson, who passed away before it ever opened on Broadway. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical.

Clearly, any production of Rent has historically big boots to fill. Hillbarn’s thrilling production does so quite comfortably.


Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net


Written byJonathan Larson
Directed byReed Flores
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru Feb 25th
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!