When rock musical Rent first premiered back in January 1996, it became a runaway phenomenon. It was the Hair for the MTV generation. It showed what life was like for young bohemians living in New York City’s East Village. It told the truth without filters. Aside from the fact the show itself was fantastic, Rent’s full-on depiction of the seedier side of life made a cultural impact too. In 1996, Rent was a bold and shameless snapshot of the streets. Two decades later, it’s more of a period piece, having lost some of its shock value as 21st century society has gradually equalled, then surpassed, what Rent has to offer.
Rent is built on vice and challenging themes. The audience is presented with a menu of sex, sexuality, bad language, HIV and drugs, some of which are too strong for younger viewers (indeed, one boy of about 13 or 14 was taken out of the show by his grandfather during the interval and never returned). In this gender-fluid, crystal meth-drenched, polysexual age, Rent’s themes should be less shocking, and maybe they are for more established audiences, but for those just looking for a damn good musical with great songs, it still packs a punch some might not be prepared for.
But make no mistake, Rent is full of great tunes, or at least great melodies. Its stand-out number is Act 2 opener Seasons of Love, but there are so many others vying for attention – the soaring title number, the beautiful recurring refrain of Light My Candle, the fun Tango: Maureen, the swaggering Santa Fe, the moving I’ll Cover You, and the rousing Act 1 closer La Vie Boheme. All of these numbers have memorable, hummable melodies which make them stand out from a crowd of around 30 songs, some of which are a little samey, but which all do the job.
Sometimes the lyrics let the tunes down. Goodbye, Love ends with the cringeworthy “Goodbye love, hello disease”, while the brief Halloween pushes the film-making analogy a little too far (“the 3D Imax of my mind”), but the sentiment shines through brightly in writer and lyricist Jonathan Larson’s intent and passion. Rent is a passionate production with love coursing through its diseased veins, and it leaves you with that very American feeling of love being able to conquer all, surviving all travails, and the Christmas setting which tops and tails the show adds to its sentimental impact.
This 20th anniversary production of Rent (which kicks off at Theatr Clwyd but which will go on a six-month UK tour from November, including two months in London’s St James Theatre) has been expertly put together by director Bruce Guthrie and his casting director Will Burton. The talent on display is phenomenal and meets the production’s needs well. The trio of Philippa Stefani, Lucie Jones and Shanay Holmes is breathtaking. Stefani’s Mimi is a sexy, no-nonsense firecracker whose tragic tale draws you in, while Holmes has great poise and dignity as Joanne. She shares a belting number with Jones’s Maureen called Take Me or Leave Me, where the lovers trade the harsh truths of a blazing row in musical form, and both are outstanding.
Jones in particular, known for her success on The X Factor, has bags of character and stage charisma and her rendition of the fabulously bonkers Over the Moon (a purposefully obscure but hilarious piece of New York performance art) is disconcertingly hypnotic (and, as ever, leaves the audience wanting a full version of Over the Moon, not just the snatched refrains we get). Jones is a coup for Theatr Clwyd and should get plenty of critical attention in London and on tour.
Drag queen Angel is a gift of a part for anybody with the self-confidence and exuberance needed to bring the character to life, and Layton Williams does a superb job. Angel’s story forms the spine of Rent and Williams’s performance shines like a diamond. As well as being a great singer and actor, Williams (once a West End Billy Elliot and Michael Jackson) is a trained and experienced dancer, and displays the full breadth of his talents throughout, particularly in the funky Today 4 U (doing back-flips in platform heels is no easy feat!). Williams, along with Jones, are the turns to watch when Rent hits the road.
The entire cast is a talented bunch, including the two male leads Billy Cullum and Ross Hunter, while Ryan O’Gorman’s deep and earthy singing voice is a refreshing change to the usual “musical theatre” singing style. His I’ll Cover You solo in Act 2 is beautiful and heartfelt.
The anthemic Seasons of Love also allows some of the less-prominent performers to shine, including Christina Modestou and Jenny O’Leary (who also raises a smile as Mrs Cohen), demonstrating that every single cast member has the guts and skill to make this production of Rent just as much a runaway success as the premiere show was two decades ago.
It will be interesting to see how this production changes as it goes on tour and visits venues of differing sizes. It could do with a bit more breathing space on stage, as, particularly in Lee Proud’s choreographed routines involving shopping trolleys and wire cages, room is at a premium (at one point a footlight was inches from destruction!). With a bit more stage space, these larger routines will breathe more easily, and numbers such as the synth-tastic Contact should seem even bigger. As it is, Anna Fleischle’s industrial set, which incorporates all of the production’s practical set-pieces as well as the live band, struggles to step back.
Rent, written by a man whose drive and passion for the project still seeps out of every line and number, is a fantastically entertaining show, with some memorable songs and an exhilarating aftertaste. It also has a simple, heartfelt central message about love, death and acceptance, all still relevant today, but perhaps audiences in 2016 are better-equipped to take these messages on board.
The UK tour will be a highlight of the British theatre scene’s programme in 2017 and Theatr Clwyd, along with everybody involved in producing such a huge, ambitious and forthright show, should be proud of what they have achieved. Come award season, Rent will be on the lips of many a nominator. You’ll see…