The opening of Act Two of Rent says all there is to say about the reasons why Jonathon Larson wrote the hit show currently enjoying a 20th Anniversary tour of the UK. 525,600 minutes – a year – what do you do with it?
The audience enter, the band are warming up, and the stage hands dress the stage. A TV screen, set amongst the mess and clutter, shows vague images of It’s A Wonderful Life, it is Xmas, and the scene is set.
The angry opening sequence, How Are We Going To Pay, telegraphs to the audience that this musical is about social issues, and this impressive cast of actors dial up the drama for a high wattage performance of Rent at the St James Theatre.
Rent gets much better with time. It is somehow more relevant today than the day it was written. The anxiety that surrounded the AIDS crisis tainted the performance of Jonathon Larson’s musical, and his death on the eve before it opened off-Broadway in 1993 only intensified the spectacle. All these years later we are able to watch the play and appreciate it as a thrilling rock musical. The most important task is for the characters to be real and director, Bruce Guthrie, has succeeded in keeping the focus on the well-drawn characters, in a score that keeps moving and weaving through a myriad of emotions.
Joshua Dever (stepping in for Billy Cullum) and Ross Hunter got the show off to a great start, in an opening scene that created the necessary tension, laced with humour. But it was when Layton Williams literally ate up the stage with his performance of Today 4 You that the audience knew that this production was going to be filled with highlights, great choreography (Lee Proud) and fine performances.
Rent is one of those shows that has captured the imagination of the public. The explanation given by lead actor Billy Cullum, in a recent interview for LiveTheatreUK:
“People take it to their heart… the idea of living without fear, I think, just hits you in the face. I remember being young, and watching the film, I don’t know why, but I felt it was a new type of musical.”
When Mimi, played by Philippa Stefani, sings Out Tonight you really get the message; she is doing it tough, she knows how to cope, she is sexy, she is young, and she is troubled.
The production design by Anna Fleischle is first rate. The three main set pieces, all wrought iron, hard edges, ladders, junk and ‘make-do’ sat naturally on the stage, allowing for the drama to flow in and across the stage enhanced by the clever choreographic moments.
The band led by the talented Phil Cornwell literally rocked. The dynamics were masterfully led by the situation and the accompaniment never overpowered.
The sequence that traces Angel’s death, and finishes with Ryan O’Gorman singing I Will Cover You is deeply moving, creatively staged and delicately performed. Ryan’s singing is haunting and heart-breakingly good, brave, strong.
There are many high notes to this production. Lucie Jones as Maureen is wonderfully fruity as the performance artist in Act One, and then grabs the stage for her duet with Stefani in Take Me Or Leave Me. All the characters stand out including performances by Shanay Holmes and Javar La’ Trail Parker in supporting roles.
We have witnessed a year in the life of a group of itinerant artists struggling to maintain their dignity and their place in the world, faced with the threat of big business and developers swallowing their very existence and the added discrimination and confusion associated with HIV/AIDS in the 199’s.
As Mimi takes her last breath, and the simply beautiful theme of La Bohème is heard, we are reminded of the artistry of Giacomo Puccini. If he ignited a spark in Jonathon Larson, and compelled him to write a new version filled with his New York family of characters, living with contemporary issues and drama, then it has all been worthwhile.
The 20th Anniversary production of Rent is a triumph of music, love and survival, played with hard-earned emotional honesty worthy of Jonathon Larson’s vision.
Photos: Matt Crockett