First things first, let’s get one thing clear – I am a steadfast ‘Rent Head’ and after this show – will remain so probably for the rest of my life and I make no apologies for this.
That being said, it’s been a whole 19 years since I was wowed (age 17 – yikes) by Jonathan Larson’s rock opera for a modern age. I wasn’t sure if the years had been kind to this production – would I even like it anymore? The show’s UK tour marks the 20th anniversary of the show.
Rent may have been billed as a parable of the modern age (inspired by Puccini’s opera La bohème), but it was also a snapshot of the 90s era, too: the cusp of the digital revolution, the internet age, the crude expansion of gentrification or ‘hipsterfication’ of previously bohemian neighbourhoods, the effects of AIDS on young communities following the 80s epidemic and scare stories. Maybe it would have lost some of it’s relevance? I had my reservations.
Back in 1998 at Shaftesbury Theatre in London, Rent was still very much in it’s infancy and was at the peak of it’s popularity, having won a shower of critical acclaim stateside (Pulitzer drama prize,four Tony awards, six Drama desk Awards, ‘Best Musical’ Awards and an Obie Award).
In ‘98, this was a show unlike anything else I had seen before. When I last saw it. I was an idiot teenager with a questionable taste in ridiculous infantile men. By the time I emerged from that theatre though, it shifted my view of the world.
But suddenly, my childish attempts to write poetry suddenly had context and purpose. I too wanted to dance on the table wearing spandex and hang from poles singing at the top of my voice like Mimi Marquez, go on protests like Maureen and befriend drag queens just like Angel Schunard.
In fact I did all of things…even though I couldn’t legitimately call myself a bohemian due to my love for global coffee chains. But even so – it didn’t even matter that my poetry was shit! I loved the way Jonathan Larson had pushed boundaries in the theatre world. I even went on to study Theatre and Media Drama and found my own little theatre circle…and my battered Rent CD (original Broadway cast recording) has accompanied me on all my journeys around the world since my 17th birthday.
So how to go about fairly reviewing a show that I have such a strong personal attachment to?
It may have been 19 years since I last saw Rent, but I can certainly see the differences (and improvements).
Lee Proud’s choreography was electric (fans of La Vie Boheme will love the table and chair dance), Angel’s acrobatic dance routine and of course the memorable ‘Tango Maureen’ – better and edgier than I remember at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Anna Fleischle’s set design includes multiple scaffolding layers on all sides and there nice touches – projecting Mark’s film on an old sheet, a trapeze, a pole, moving structures as vehicles for the characters, cages during the song ‘Contact’ – Maureen’s hilarious costume surprise during her protest song.
Rent is centred around a group of young struggling artists in New York’s East Village – they are fighting the property expansion and development which threatens to take over their performance space and remain true to their artforms and to themselves. I know how this sounds! And yes – over the years Rent’s edgy style (and way of incorporating social commentary into a musical) has been mercilessly parodied and skewered by the likes of Team America.
And yet! There are so many layers to unwrap and musical styles to bask in throughout this show…and try as I might even all these years later after seeing the first show in 1998, I couldn’t get through the first three songs without ruining my mascara and blubbing (I also snorted out loud…in front of some minor Welsh celebs in the audience. Oh well!)
It’s sometimes a mistake to get so accustomed to an original cast recording that you can’t imagine anyone else singing those parts. All these years, I had no idea I was loving the voice of someone who would later become the voice of a Disney character (Idina Menzel, the original cast member for ‘Maureen’ went on to become the voice of Elsa, much to the annoyance of parents worldwide who had to listen to ‘Let it go’ 1,000 times a day).
I wasn’t sure how Lucie Jones (an X-Factor contestant – pah!) would handle the role of Maureen. And I was entirely wrong to pre-judge her due to my dislike of the X-Factor because not only did Lucie Jones absolutely SLAY the role of Maureen, she brought out even more of a kooky side to her (and single-handedly inspired me to lose three stone so I can look as amazing as she did in that body stocking! Wow).
Ryan O’Gorman’s sweet portrayal of Collins was beautiful – and his silky baritone vocals not only matched the calibre of the broadway version of Rent but perhaps even went one step beyond it.
The interaction between Leyton Williams (who previously had the title role of London’s Billy Elliot) as the lovely Angel and Collins was a joy to witness – and Layton brought a whole new talent to Angel’s ‘Today for you, tomorrow for me’ routine with astonishing leaps, spins and flips….and all in outrageous heels and a cloak coat.
You might think Jonathan Larson’s energy and optimism in the music and lyrics may come across as syrupy and hammy….but lord knows we need this more in 2017 than we did in 1996 when Rent opened.
For me Rent’s underlying sadness is that for all it’s popularity and influence, writer/composer Jonathan Larson’s early death (age 35) meant that he never got to see any of the success and joy that this musical has brought to people over the last 20 years.
Even all these years later, Larson ‘s story remains relevant and engaging for modern audiences. We are what we own. We’re knee-deep in a culture of mindless McJobs and as Mark and Roger sing: ‘We’re living in America…leave your conscience at the tone’. In the age of deportations and walls and blind gun laws (let along the way the tide is turning against LGBTQ communities), I really do question humanity sometimes.
I don’t know how many terms Donald Trump has or how many years of damage our current generation has ahead of them, but though it all I’ll still listen that old Rent CD of mine and remind myself that ‘We’re Okay’.
Bruce Guthrie’s production and Cardiff’s warm and inviting reception to Rent’s songs show me that there are still good people in the world. And I know this because all of them were mooing, crying, laughing and on their feet by my side at the end.
I’m definitely not leaving it another 19 years before I see this show again!
Type of show: Theatre
Venue: Wales Millennium Centre (Cardiff)
Dates: 3-8 April
Book, Music and Lyrics: Jonathan Larson
Directed by: Bruce Guthtie
Director/choreographer: Chantelle Carey
Billy Cullum (Mark Cohen)
Ross Hunter (Roger Davis)
Ryan O’Gorman (Collins)
Layton Williams (Angel Schunard)
Phillippa Stefani (Mimi Marquez)
Lucie Jones (Maureen Johnson)
Shanay Holmes (Joanne Jefferson)
Running time: 2.5hrs (approx)
Produced by: Idili Theatricals Ltd / Theatr Clwyd