Rent Review 1998

  • Date:
    Thursday, May 14, 1998

    Directed by Michael Greif, this musical is inspired by Puccini's "La Boheme" and concerns a group of young people who live in today's New York. Benny, a former roommate of Mark and Roger has bought the building that they live in, including the building next door which is being used as a squat by a group of homeless people. Benny, with the help of his rich father-in-law intends turning the building into a cyber-arts studio, but first they have to evict Mark and Roger and the homeless people. However, the threatened tenants plan a protest to take place midnight Christmas Eve, which results in a riot.

    This is a rock musical aimed mainly at the younger generation, and at 37 perhaps I'm a little too old! The story centres on two lesbians, two gay men, a straight couple and a man who has no partner, preferring to love his work instead. Most take drugs, don't have a job or money and love music and some have Aids. This gives you an idea of what this musical is like, very modern, politically correct and very hip for the youth of today.

    I found the story a little predicable and the music average, although there are some good songs. However, there is no doubting the talent of this exciting young cast who breath life into the show and perform superbly. Adam Pascal plays Roger, a musician whose girlfriend has died. While still grieving he befriends a young drug addict with whom he falls in love. Pascal has a brilliant and powerful voice, which he projects with stupendous passion. There is an amicable performance from Anthony Rapp as Mark, Roger's roommate who at times seems to care more for his work as a filmmaker than he does for his friend's plight. Jesse L. Martin is convincing as Collins, who is the boyfriend of drag queen Angel played touchingly by Wilson Jermaine Heredia. There is also a wonderful performance from Krysten Cummings who plays Mimi, a junkie, who is the ex-girlfriend of Benny and who falls for Roger.

    The popular press was impressed by Rent. NICHOLAS DE JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD says the musical will "haunt me beautifully". MICHAEL COVENEY of THE DAILY MAIL says Michael Greif's production "will appeal to anyone who treasures freshness and spontaneity". CHARLES SPENCER of THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says the "production is performed with real heart and vitality by an exceptionally accomplished cast." MICHAEL BILLINGTON of THE GUARDIAN said, "Rent undeniably has musical talent and energy". ROBERT GORE-LANGTON of THE DAILY EXPRESS was luke-warm about the show saying, "In a small New York fringe theatre I bet it was strikingly original. In this plush West End barn it's hip credentials have got lost somewhere." So too was DAVID BENEDICT of THE INDEPENDENT saying, "If you go determined to succumb to the cast and their all American heart, you'll love it. Yet as soon as the pace begins to flag (halfway through the first act), you begin to feel the flaws."

    Rent is a modern romantic tragedy that is a breath of fresh air in the West End. The show did not live up to my expectations, but nevertheless it is still a hauntingly touching vibrant show. The cast received a deserving standing ovation at the end, from the predominantly young audience. Although the show has been a sell out in New York, I think it will struggle to entice the British public to see it and thus I don't expect the show to last a year, although I have been wrong before!

    (Darren Dalglish)

    "December 24th 9pm Easter Standard Time. From here on in we shoot without a script". The date might be wrong, but otherwise these opening words to the US's latest gift to the West End is strangely prophetic. Jonathan Larson had managed to craft a very strong set of songs before his untimely death just before his show opened on Broadway. We can only wonder what he'd have made of the show as it can be seen here, two years on, in London. The programme assures us he would have been proud.

    I am less certain. The Broadway cast recording is, if something of an acquired taste, rich and, at times, inspirational. The London production arguably had so much to live up to that it could really only fail to do so. Many of the leads from Broadway have been drafted-in for this production: Anthony Rapp's distinctive voice produces a fine 'Mark', the observant character in Larson's book; and Adam Pascal is a powerful 'Roger', a character who wrestles with his love life, music and AIDS. Jesse L Martin as 'Collins' and Wilson Jermain Heredia as the drag queen, 'Angel' will also be familiar to those who have heard the Broadway cast recording or followed Rent as it opened on Broadway. Joining the 'natives' is Krysten Cummings, who seems to have transferred all the skills I saw her display in 'The Fix' last year - namely a wonderful voice and some rather dull acting.

    Unfortunately there is hardly an opportunity to display anything other than one's singing skills in this distinctly sans-drama musical. I us the term 'musical' loosely - as it appears nothing more than a rock concert at times. Pascal sails through solo numbers like 'One Song Glory' (probably the highlight of the show) with an impressive ease. However, with more than one person on stage, songs just turn into shouting and drama goes out of the proverbial window. One wonders where the director was during rehearsals - the ensemble playing falls apart with characters meandering around the stage in a seemingly random fashion. A cast of very talented singers, such as this, needs to be given opportunities to act, but they never transpire. As such we are left with a rock-fest that fails to make any point or lead the audience to feeling in any way sympathetic. For a book based around a series of Bohemian AIDS victims and their associates, struggling to get through each day, this is a major failing. Characters appear to 'whining' rather than reflecting as the director struggles to find a glimmer of poignancy. Rent ends, more or less, where is left off - which would be fine - but it doesn't really go anywhere in between.

    Maybe the lack of drama is the whole point? This is certainly a new type of theatre, which on a purely musical level has a great deal going for it. Maybe this is new-age opera, where the 'hammy' acting has been totally removed to leave a purely musical shell? It works on that level - but then one can't help asking why they bothered with a plot at all. To say Rent isn't an enjoyable show would be a lie. To anyone who enjoyed just parts of the CD or who are after a night out at a concert without the beer-swilling - I can recommend Rent - just leave your brain at home.

    Nick Perry

    I had the great fortune of catching the show this week and was completely stunned by the outstanding performances in our very own Shaftesbury Theatre. I went to the show with some knowledge of the basic plot but could never have imagined I would have been subjected to such electrifying performances. Not since Anthony Sher in Tamburlaine, Diana Rigg in Medea or, going from the sublime to the ridiculous, Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Show have I been quite so impressed by the talent on stage.   How could you not be moved by the plight of Angel and Collins?  Collins' smooth and melodic voice alone touches my emotions in places where angels would fear to tread; this is heightened by the tender portrayal of his relationship with Angel (understudied by Wayne Perrey in the performance I saw).  It's incredible to think that there is talent out there like that of Perrey which is relegated to understudy.  This boy is sensational!

    Roger seems to be afflicted by the same anguish from which our ancient hero Hamlet suffers:  indecision.  I know I take my life in my hands by juxtaposing Larson and Shakespeare but the character of Roger, just like Hamlet, tries to run away from his problems before he realises he has to face them.  His soliloquy if I may use that term, One Song Glory, is at least direct, truthful and honest unlike the dithery psycho-sexual meanderings of Hamlet. Adam Pascal's strong voice delivers a powerful impression of a character searching for meaning among a backgdrop of urban decay.  Pascal's fine vocal talents are further appreciated during the haunting melodies of Light My Candle and I Should Tell You with the achingly schizophrenic Mimi; at once a sex hungry tramp and then a vulnerable and timid girl almost childlike in her need for love.

    Larson managed superbly to inject high entertainment into this portrayal of an emerging underclass fighting for the right to live with dignity. Just try to watch the spectacle of La Vie Boheme without grinning madly and tapping your feet - impossible!  And what can I say of Maureen's one woman show?  "Moo" just about covers it.  These are elements to the show that give the characters depth and dimension.  We know their problems, share their joys and feel their fight.

    At times the show is so honest it is almost painful to watch.  As Roger and Mark deliver their opinions of the other's problems we realise that this isn't only New York.  We have HIV and AIDS  all over the world, homelessness, loneliness, poverty and drug abuse.  The reason that 'Rent' is such a success is the same reason that 'Hamlet' is still running 400 hundred years after its conception.  Shakespeare knew how to touch people deep within; he showed us emotions we were too scared to explore for ourselves.  Larson had this same gift. He shows us a tragedy and tempers it with the fight for dignity and survival.  We empathise with each and every one of his characters whether it be because we screen our calls so as not to talk to our mothers or because we struggle to hang on to our sanity in our ever decreasing circles.  The point is we struggle and we survive.

    'Rent' is a play at the threshold of a new age of theatre.  Just as 'Hair' and 'The Rocky Horror Show' changed the way musical theatre could be enjoyed 'Rent' pushes these boundaries further.  There is of course a place for the classical dramas  and comedies of yore but the theatre is a live show and therefore an everchanging medium.  We need it to develop if we are to preserve what we already have.  We need to win the attentions of a new audience and give them something vibrant and uplifting in their national theatres.

    'Grease' isn't the word any more, 'Rent' is.

    (Debra J Horn)

    No Day But Today. Indeed, this show still makes your day. Simply stunning. Except for Krysten, I didnt see these principals in the cast before, and I was stunned.

    Eldridge is a very different Roger than Adrian, but the voice is incredible, really superb. Looks a bit like the new Phantom (Mike Sterling) with his short hair I thought... McFadden wasn't really giving the best show in years, but the voice was nice. Liked Jacqui Dubois as Joanne and loved Angela Bradley, understudying Maureen.

    Andy Senor doesn't sparkle as much as Wilson Jermaine Heredia as Angel, but he was very sweet. Mark Vincent was vocally a much better Tom Collins, though I missed some emotion.

    I cant ignore Andy Mace as Steve and the waiter because he was deadly funny ! Really worth the money on its own to see him in La Vie Boheme !

    There were some new people in the orchestra, who at times did some very weird things, but overall it was nice. And Krysten Cummings did it again ! I was crying when she died. Go see it, not just any day, but TODAY !!!

    (Sven Verlinden)

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