Theater Review: RENT (Berkeley Playhouse)

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by Chuck Louden on February 27, 2024

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Founded in 2007, Berkeley Playhouse is known for its youth programs and summer theater camps for Bay Area youth. Classic family friendly shows such as Peter Pan, Cinderella & Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory are amongst their productions. Occasionally though they take on more “adult themed” classics. Now playing through March 31 is the 1996 classic: Rent. Director Kimberly Dooley just slathers the stage in love, making me fall in love with this production.

Rent is Jonathan Larson’s classic story of New York City youth sharing a communal building, dealing with poverty and addiction at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. The show won several Tony Awards in 1996 and was made into a film featuring most of the original cast in 2005. Productions of Rent have been performed in traveling companies and on school campuses ever since. The underlying message of survival through love and courage is just as relevant today.

Rent is definitely being performed by adults, but to this aging Baby Boomer, these late teen and early twenty-somethings seemed like kids. No matter. In every production I’ve seen at the Berkeley Playhouse, all the performers — from young children to senior actors — are real “Triple Threats”: they can sing, dance and act like professional Broadway actors. This show is no exception. Sarah Phykitt’s multi-level set with balconies and catwalks covered with Christmas lights create the classic New York City loft on which the actors sing, dance and leap with ease without missing a beat. Wardrobe Coordinator Ari Powell’s costumes and props help create the thrift store/vagabond look that young people with limited incomes put together giving them their own unique style.

The entire ensemble, naturally, gives it their all. Standouts are Tommy Lassiter as Mark, who acts as the narrator, setting up the scenes while also being the emotional center of the group; leaping on tables and balconies and singing his heart out, he captivates the audience every time he’s on stage. Sleiman Alahmadieh is his best friend Roger who’s HIV+  and plays his guitar and sings about his woes knowing that he’s probably living on borrowed time. Alex Rodriguez is amazing as Angel, a gentle spirit who is androgynous and non-binary (a term that we did not have in 1996); Angel is optimistic and hopeful despite having an uncertain future.

Although unseen, the orchestra makes a mighty presence: Michael Patrick Wiles & Kenji Harada on keys, Danny Cozart on guitar, Kendra Kop on bass and Adriano Tecson on drums maintain the lively and often blasting music enhancing the fast pace of the show.

The message behind Rent in 1996 remains the same for the young audience in 2024 — it teaches us to “Measure our life in love.” This production surely does that.

photos by Ben Krantz Studio

Berkeley Playhouse
Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave. in Berkeley
ends on March 31, 2024
for tickets, call 510.845.8542, ext. 351 or visit Berkeley Playhouse

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