For any musical theatre fan, it's a pretty big thing not to have seen Rent. It's become a cult hit and its messages of faith and love are particularly poignant given that composer Jonathan Larson died the day before the musical opened on Broadway, to critical and commercial success. Ever since then, fans of Rent have held it in a special place in their hearts.
With this production of it, I can see the appeal. It's clear that the cast is packed with Rent fans, who thoroughly enjoy their chances to rock out on stage to songs like Rent and La Vie Boheme and are clearly moved by the tragic sections of the musical. There's a lot of raunchy dancing there and the cast really go for it, probably pleased that they have the chance to do something edgy in what can be quite a conventional form of drama.
The musical is loosely based on Puccini's opera La Boheme, following a group of struggling young artists and dancers in Alphabet City in the late-eighties. Mark (played by Tony Portsmouth) is a struggling filmmaker who pulls the whole thing together, documenting his friends' lives over the course of a year. These friends include Roger (Rich Madgwick), a musician battling writer's block and AIDS- an illness which permeates the musical just as tuberculosis did in La Boheme; Philosophy professor Collins (Daniel Haswell); drug addicted dancer Mimi (Emily Canessa Davies); warring lesbian couple Maureen (Jessica Moloney) and Joanne (Amelia Hamilton); and drag queen Angel (Daniel O'Carroll).
Plot-wise, I just about got to grips with the narrative, which is at its best when exploring the relationships of the characters. It's also when the score is strongest; Roger and Mimi in particular get some beautiful songs and there's a heart-wrenching reprise of I'll Cover You. Madgewick and Davies are particularly strong, their best moments being in the songs Light My Candle and I Should Tell You. Their story thread is probably the best in the narrative, which juggles a lot of characters. If you like to know exactly what's happening with your plots, I'd swot up a little first. The entire musical is sung-through and the talented band occasionally drowned out the cast. Perhaps the assumption is that the audience are familiar with Rent but it was a bit of a juggling act.
Moloney and Hamilton are also strong as the only non-troubled couple. Lesbians don't really appear much on stage and the two give believable performances in songs like Take Me or Leave Me. Moloney's performance artist act- a sort of slam poet- adds some comic relief to a tragic musical that is actually strangely uplifting as well as sobering.
Having a young cast really works for this musical- the film was criticised for using the original Broadway cast, who had all aged ten years- providing the optimism and energy needed. I'm not a fan of all the songs, particularly the comic ones, although they are performed well by the cast, but the musical has a lot of gems. Its rock opera style was highly influential on later musicals, particularly Spring Awakening, and the cast showcase