Criticisms of “Rent” — ranging from the throwaway “Broad City” joke, “I don’t understand how they thought that they just didn’t need to pay rent, like, at all,” to the serious claim that playwright Jonathan Larson plagiarized lesbian activist Sarah Schulman’s novel “People in Trouble” — have rightfully arisen in the years following the musical’s Broadway premiere in 1996.
“Rent” prioritizes two white, straight men within a narrative set at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, which disproprortionately affected queer people and people of color; HIV/AIDS continues to claim lives in these communities to this day. But to dismiss the musical offhand and disregard the lasting legacy made by the many queer people of color who have been members of its casts over the years would be overly reductive and is also not my call as a queer white woman.
Should one choose to attend “Rent” during LGBTQ+ Pride Month after reading extensive critiques, the production at the Golden Gate Theatre portrays the musical at its best. The 20th anniversary tour, which kicked off in 2016 and is presently being hosted by SHN for a 13-performance run, doesn’t reinvent the wheel as much as it treats its source material like a well-loved, dog-eared book. Its set and many of its costumes strongly resemble those from the show’s original run.
Daylights, sunsets, midnights and cups of coffee measured, 20-plus years means that any given audience of “Rent” knows offhand how many minutes are in a year. After more than 12,088,800 minutes measured in “Rent” satire and far too many heterosexual wedding flash mobs, it’s a testament to the creative team of the revival, led by director Evan Ensign, that associations with parody seem to fade away and the songs still manage to come across as earnest. It’s a production immersive enough that both acts begin before the house lights go down, in which familiarity only tightens, rather than breaks, the show’s grasp upon its audience.
The limitless talent of Deri’Andra Tucker as Mimi, emotive delivery of Devinré Adams as Collins and comedic chops of Lyndie Moe as Maureen provide slight alterations to their respective characters’ status quo. Tucker, in particular, has the range — her high-pitched, breathy “Light My Candle” provides a hyperfeminine interpretation that highlights Mimi’s youth. Her performance’s dynamism is cemented by her rousing “Out Tonight” and full-throated “Without You.” Moe’s “Over the Moon” manages to milk new jokes out of the monologue via perfectly timed, exaggerated mugs and body movements.
Marlies Yearby’s choreography is at its best when the cast members play off each other, as in the synchronization of head jolts and table bangs for the opening bars of “La Vie Bohème” and in the character-driven movements of “Tango: Maureen,” where a rivalry is expressed far more eloquently by the slightest of tango steps than by the song’s lyrics. The performers, Logan Marks and Lencia Kebede, bounce off each other for this number, their individual charismas complementing one another.
From the smooth blocking of “Happy New Year” featuring the entire central cast standing in pairs downstage to the small moment when Roger (Joshua Bess) clutches a handful of Mimi’s coat as he belts his part of “Goodbye Love,” the precision of this production is what makes it absorbing. Jonathan Spencer’s similarly detail-oriented lighting design becomes a welcome third wheel to Mimi and Roger’s love story — swathing the stage in moving red lights serving as candles, spotlighting Bess from below in “One Song Glory” so that his downtrodden shadow consumes the set behind him, changing colors for the lovers’ parts in their duet “Another Day.”
If we cast cultural implications aside regarding a production entirely about cultural implications, the immense talent of the 20th anniversary production of “Rent” is enough to transcend the show’s lofted position within the cultural lexicon and immerse a viewer fully in the narrative, to make them cry on the requisite emotional beats and fall in love with the characters all over again. Personal politics may dictate whether one decides to attend “Rent,” but should you choose to, this is likely one of the best versions to witness.
“Rent” will run through June 23 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre.