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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Dan Chasemore April 26th, 2010
It certainly was an enjoyable evening, but I disagree with you that the direction team had an 'attention to detail' - for me, although the performances were good, it was really quite sloppy, uneven, and lacked polish from the directorial point of view. In fact I think the cast can be commended for having to work against what the direction was frequently asking them to do.
For me it was really quite uneven - the pacing was all over the place, not at all helped by some terribly eggy gaps between numbers as cast members shuffled on to move tables or to simply get into position. There were several technical issues - not least with the sound, but it did seem as if the staging wasn't creative enough to work out how to acheive the changes of location and time needed to let the story flow.
At the beginning of act 2 for example, it seemed as if they simply couldn't be bothered to work out how to break back into the appartment through the fire escape and through the door - so the cast just wandered around the stage for the number, waiting for it to finish.
Similarly, it 'Over the Moon' felt out of place - it seemed like there were no ideas about how to make it actually justify its place in act one - especially after Christmas Bells effectively signalled the interval 10 minutes previously. It takes an incredibly charismatic Maureen to capture the audience back from this and deliver something interesting - all we got was a half hearted tribute to Idina Menzel which was just a little uncomfortable. A little bit of interesting direction would have given her a fighting chance!
I agree that the show itself has problems - but these are problems that with good direction and production design can (and have) been overcome - that was really what I thought was lacking.
The cast were very good overall - Roger was excellent. Mimi had a similarly fabulous voice (I can forgive the tiring at the end of Out Tonight - it is nearly impossible to sing) although I felt she was either miscast, or sent in a direction that gave her too much to do. Although it was amusing to see her in 'maneater' mode, it would have been nice to see the vulnerable Mimi - a victim of circumstance. The fact that she had AIDS didn't really feature until the end. An insight into her life would have been nice. Having said that 'Without You' was specatular.
As had been commented on pretty much everywhere, Angel was spectacular, although he did have to suffer the indignity of having to shuffle off stage after he died (Spoiler Alert!)- again it would have been nice to see this problem be dealt with creatively.
Mark for me, didn't work - he functioned pretty much as a standard narrator, and I didn't get much from his storyline. His reedy voice didn't seem to balance with Rogers, and didn't have the power to convey anything nearing the conviction needed for the opening number of 'What You Own'. A little more on his relationship with Maureen would have given him a bit more depth.
So overall, for me it was a good performance of the songs from Rent, without the overall power that the musical itself can achieve. There wasn't much new or creative in here, and while that isn't neccassarily a bad thing, it would have been nice to have come away with the buzz that the world collectively got from it in the late 90's.