Rent The Musical is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and this new production at The Festival Theatre playing to a packed out auditorium clearly shows that the show easily has another 20 years to run.
Rent is the vision of one of the most gifted composers of his generation, Jonathan Larson, and is his retelling of the classic opera “La Boheme” by Puccini brought up to date to reflect the life and times of himself and his friends in 1980s/1990s New York. Transfer our Parisian Bohemians to a New York Block threatened by “upgrading” and our tragic heroine Mimi dying of tuberculosis to an unlikely heroine with a drug addiction dying of HIV complications along with other main character updates, then you have the modern twist needed to create a contemporary work based on a classic but at the same time dealing with the HIV / AIDS epidemic that Jonathan Larson saw taking away so many of his friends and loved ones. To add even more tragedy to the story of “Rent”, Jonathan died unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm the day before the show’s first scheduled performance. At only 35 years old, and with so much to still give the world, Jonathan Larson was dead.
Rent opens with our two central characters Mark Cohen (an indie film maker played by Billy Cullum) and Roger Davis (a songwriter who is HIV positive, played by Ross Hunter) in their small and unheated top floor living space. The tragedy starts early here as we very quickly learn that Roger’s last girlfriend has died of HIV complications and he wants to write that one great song before he too dies. Oddly enough though this relationship and its effects on Roger are pretty much left unexplored. Just as life looks endlessly bleak though, enter into Roger’s life, our new 20th century Mimi (Philippa Stefani), an exotic dancer with more than a few personal problems. Rent has a complex and shifting in relationships set of characters and a quick “Google” search is a better place to go to find out more about the plot and characters than the limited space in this review. In Act 1 we do though pretty much have our central characters – Tom Collins (Ryan O’ Gorman), Benjamin Coffin III (Javar La Trail Parker), Angel Schunard (Harrison Clark), Maureen Johnson (Lucie Jones) and Joanne Jefferson (Shanay Holmes) in place. Also right in place early here is the reason for the title, how to pay last year’s (and this year’s) rent which has suddenly become due on demand by former close friend and new landlord Benny.
Rent is a very complex piece of work both musically and lyrically, and this was my first visit to the show, and I have to admit that with a complex narrative told in song, that on some of the group production numbers, I know I have missed a thing or two and need to see this show again to appreciate some of its complexity more.
Act 1 is really a celebration of life and the Bohemian lifestyle but one underpinned with the ever present spectres of AIDS and HIV positive diagnosis running through it claiming lives that are far too young and robbing people of their dignity in the often unavoidable end process. This aspect of holding onto one’s dignity as long as possible is a central theme to this story. The emphasis on the Bohemian lifestyle and trying to save their living space by protest does at times for me detract a bit from the initial personal tragedy that is set up right at the beginning, but this is balanced somewhat by some interesting relationships and some great songs – “One Song Glory” and “Light My Candle” to name only two.
Where Act 1 is full of song and dance and light, Act II is a far darker theatrical experience as we focus far more on the relationships of our characters and the death of one of our central characters (if you’ve not seen the show or the film, I’m not telling you who). Here, we explore not only the loss of a loved one and the emptiness that leaves for the surviving partner and friends, but also the celebration of their life and what they have given to everyone. Also here, Roger has written his one great song, and with the by now very ill Mimi in his arms, “Your Eyes” is simply a classic, and for me the defining song of the whole show. This second act for me is far more emotional and powerful than Act I.
It is not possible to single out any one performance here as all were great (including the live musicians). Everyone on stage contributed to a great modern musical update of La Boheme, and explorations into relationships no matter what gender combinations they may come in.
Twenty years on from when RENT first appeared it is a reminder of the devastation to personal lives and communities that HIV/AIDS brought, and although neither have gone away, perhaps the effectiveness in some cases of modern drugs have blunted a little our understanding of their true horrors and made us all a bit complacent.
Oddly enough though for me, I never found that great personal statement song here – nothing for me with the power of “I Am What I am” or “True Colours”
If you want to see and experience the original source material for this show, Scottish Opera are touring Puccini’s classic La Boheme soon and coming to The Festival Theatre Wed 31 May to Sat 10 June. Full details at https://www.scottishopera.org.uk/shows/la-boh%C3%A8me/
RENT is a modern classic that deserves to be standing side by side with its original source material “La Boheme”. Try not to miss this one.
Review by Tom King