When Jonathan Larson’s Rent first burst onto the American musical theatre scene 14 years ago, with personal stories about the pain, suffering and sacrifices within a community of struggling bohemians in contemporary New York, it must have been a refreshing and timely alternative to the less controversial subject matter of composers such as Andrew Lloyd-Webber.
It will be interesting to see what patrons make of Rent’s gritty world of instability and whether the raw issues of the young characters – who include a song writer, film maker, exotic dancer, cross dressing gay musician, lesbian civil rights advocate, bisexual performance artist, anarchist and drug abusers (many of whom are battling AIDS) – will resonate with a wide audience today.
Full credit must go to Auckland Musical Theatre Inc. for taking this calculated risk; committing to a large-scale production in Auckland’s Civic; and casting an exciting mix of fresh faces & established artists, including the richly talented and inspiring Annie Crummer.
While Crummer delivers a stand out electric performance (which on opening night also included an incredible act of unflappable professionalism when her microphone failed), she is not alone.
Cameron Clayton serves up a fabulous performance as Angel, climaxing in a show-stealing flamboyant song, dance & percussion routine in ‘Today 4 U’.
Alongside the effortlessly smooth, gorgeous vocals of Tama Waipara (who plays his partner Collins), Clayton’s duets and ensemble numbers deliver great vocal blend. The connection is particularly pleasing over the sublime groove of Musical Director Grant Winterburn and his impressive 4-piece band, in ‘Santa Fe’.
Across the board, Winterburn gives Rent a texture that its creator and driving force, Jonathan Larson, would’ve been proud of.
Michael Murphy & Rebecca Wright both confidently own the stage and interact well as their characters’ complicated love grows. Playing singer-songwriter Roger, Murphy still punches out rock songs with great force (‘One Song Glory’ & ‘Rent’).
Playing smack addict Mimi, Wright is fearless during her solo ‘Out Tonight’. Gyrating on scaff-poles, this scary hedonist bears no resemblance to the sweet Pearl from Starlight Express, Wright’s last prominent role. Mimi’s bleak desperate journey has potent currency, given New Zealand is still fighting its own P-ridden underbelly.
Kristian Lavercombe has strong presence as the show’s narrator Mark; Melissa Nordhaus (as Maureen) and Paul Fagamalo (as Benny) hold their own among this fierce cast; as do the ensemble of 9, who individually and collectively add their force and colour to Rent.
Larson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, died hours before the show’s off-Broadway debut in 1996. While his musical enjoyed accolades and box office success, and fuelled a surge in musical theatre’s popularity to a new and younger generation, I wonder if Larson had the chance to see his work today, whether he would make some significant cuts and edits.
In particular, the first half feels too long and seems to miss two potential ends: after ‘Christmas Bells’ then again (if ‘Over The Moon’ is really necessary) after the first performance of ‘La Vie Bohème’. (Rent is based on and inspired by Puccini’s Opera La Bohème, but substitutes Tuberculosis with AIDS and Paris with New York’s East Village, which was a Mecca for social misfits.)
No doubt the fact that Rent is semi-autobiographical explains Larson’s desire to include so much detail and dialogue about the struggles. Perhaps being so close to the subject matter resulted in trying to say too much. Objectively, there are perhaps a few too many unnecessary sob-plots, with detailed twists & turns; a few too many songs, including a couple of company numbers which could be defined as a cacophony of fragmented polyphonic emotion. At times the audience is left overwhelmed (not in a good way).
Music should drive the story forward, providing an overall structure and logical momentum. Rent surges, stalls, moves slowly forward, pauses, and then surges on again. There is an extraordinary amount of recitative (passages sung like speech), and while the cast’s diction is largely impeccable, and even though each aggrieved character has much to say about their circumstance and feelings, sometimes less is more. For many in the audience who are used to a simpler form of story telling, Rent’s structure and length is uneven and at times, an arduous journey.
I mean this in no way to reflect on the great work and polish that director Richard Neame has brought to this production: his attention to detail from start to finish, his overall pace, energy and passion, is without fault. Musical Staging by Teesh Szabo adds thrust and grit, plus a more lyrical dynamic in softer moments such as ‘Without You’ – which is nicely illuminated by lighting designer Nik Janiurek. I do feel, however, that Szabo and Janiurek both somewhat underutilised set designer Simon Coleman’s vast and impressive scaffolding.
Finally, technical perfection on opening night can be hugely challenging if there have not been enough technical rehearsals allocated to achieve the required result. Regrettably, and for whatever reason, Rent’s opening was dogged by a noticeable number of late audio cues, and to a lesser extent, late spotlights, which tended to chase the soloists, rather than announce them.
The sad calamity of her microphone failure, which would have been Annie Crummer’s shining moment, soaring above the warm chorus in ‘Season’s Of Love’, was at least made more bearable for this much-adored artist by the audience staying with her, encouraging her, and screaming support, when – even without amplification – she somehow managed to fill the Civic.
It was a unique shared experience.
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