Rent (Next Step Productions, 2014)
People who know me well might be aware that I have a bad habit of getting personally offended when someone criticises something I love. One of those things is Rent – my favourite musical. When my boyfriend told me he didn’t think it was that great I may have told him he didn’t have a soul, which didn’t go down that well. But I think I’ve figured out some of the reasons why people might not like Rent:
a) It is a sung-through musical. While I LOVE musicals that do away with dialogue (which to me is really just filler between songs) I do concede that it can make it more difficult to follow the plot. The spoken word is often more clear than the sung word. I’ll admit that the first time I saw a production of Rent I didn’t quite follow it all and didn’t fall in love with it instantly either.
b) It has a somewhat unusual structure. For example, the whole cast starting Act 2 singing ‘Seasons of Love’ seems a bit random. I personally have no issue with that.
c) Some people consider bohemian artists as pretentious and don’t have time for their stories (you can go back to your bullshit Transformers movies then).
d) Some people are homophobic arseholes.
e) Some people are not into the rock-opera/contemporary musical style used in Rent (personally, I think these kind of musicals are the best ones)
f) And then there are those who just as a blanket rule “hate musicals”. Also known as dicks.
So there you go- some fair and some bullshit reasons to not like Rent. But I think some of the haters may be really missing the point. This musical was ground-breaking for a reason. It gave a voice to those struggling artists in the late 80s/early 90s who were dealing with the AIDS epidemic in New York City. It is about LOVE. It is about FRIENDSHIP. It is about living in the present, instead of clinging onto the past and fearing death. It is about the power of self-expression, through film, music, fashion, dance, and theatre. It is about INDIVIDUALITY. Furthermore, Rent was written by the late Jonathan Larson, who tragically passed away at age 35 from a heart aneurysm the morning of the Off-Broadway premiere, meaning he never got to see the phenomenon that Rent would become. This only intensified the show’s message of celebrating life every day (“No day but today”) and serves as a tribute to its creator.
But for me, the absolute best part about Rent is Larson’s score. While there’s an overall rock/contemporary feel to it, it never falls into the trap of all its songs sounding a bit too same-same. Rather, it is an eclectic mix involving rock, pop, gospel, Latin, and soul styles. There are also some mad falsettos and female belts which are two things that make me happier than anything else in the world. I love almost every song but my favourite would have to be the diva-off ‘Take me or leave me’ (although not many people can beat Idina Menzel, the original Maureen). However, it’s ‘I’ll Cover You (Reprise)’ which manages to get me every damn time I see Rent. As soon as the music begins I’m in tears.
SO, now it’s time to focus on the production of Rent I saw last night. It was presented by new production company, Next Step Productions, at Chapel off Chapel in Prahran. Directed by Paul Watson, this was a top-notch production with no weak links. Every cast member was excellent. I was somewhat confused about who was playing Roger as it had been billed as Steve Simmonds in the role who I had seen in a previous (also excellent) production and it clearly wasn’t him. It turns out the director himself (Paul Watson) played the final two performances, which made a whole lot of sense. Whilst he didn’t really look the role (based on previous productions I’ve seen, as really there is no necessary ‘look’), he brought something a lot deeper to the role which I hadn’t seen before, adding extra grit and really demonstrating Roger’s inner demons in the aftermath of his ex-girlfriend’s suicide and AIDS diagnosis. This production as a whole felt a lot more raw and emotional than I’m used to seeing, and I think this is likely largely attributed to its direction. Onya Paul.
Melanie Ott as Mimi was fantastic. I did not even realise it was the same woman from Grease 2 (another gem of a musical but for entirely different reasons). She KILLED her ‘Out Tonight’, and was great overall in the role (even if she didn’t quite pass for Hispanic and had hair that was way too perfectly styled for a junkie). Gemma Purdy’s ‘Over the Moon’ as Maureen was hilarious and she brought some individuality to what is definitely the weirdest number in the show, but in this production was easily one of the best. Shaun Kingma’s baritone… words cannot express. As soon as he sang his first note I was all for him. And as for his ‘I’ll Cover You (Reprise)’: it just kills me every time. You can’t get away with anyone less than brilliant in the role of Tom Collins. Zuleika Khan as Joanne was crazy-good and Cameron McDonald made a great Mark, throwing in some extra quirky bits that differentiated his performance from other Marks I’ve seen. And then Leigh Barker as Angel: made me cry more than once. You are just a beautiful man. The rest of the cast were also excellent.
The band rocked it hard, the choreography was great, the lighting and the set design was right on, and the sound was also flawless. I heard a woman at interval say it was too loud but she was old.
RENT-HEADS REJOICE! 4.5 stars