Questions of morals, life decisions, friendship and aspirations are what create Jonathon Larson’s classic and uniquely brilliant: RENT. In this 20th anniversary UK Tour, the cast and creative team bring to life the story of 7 artists in the wake of the American AIDS epidemic, Mark documents the whole show on his camera as he aspires to become a filmmaker, whilst his best friend Roger hopes for just one song in his pursuit of becoming a music artist. As the story turns into the darker side of Larson’s piece, this production deals with it through sheer maturity, respect and creative genius.
The whole cast is simply faultless, with highlights from Javar La’Trail Parker as the antagonist Benny in You’ll See. His aggression towards the bohemian life is heightened in the show’s classic La Vie Boheme in which Billy Cullum reaches a real high point as the filmmaker Mark and Lee Proud’s choreography really re-invents this number for the better. For the audience, colour and movement make this the most memorable end of act one.
The relationship between struggling and bereaved Roger (Josh Dever) and Mimi (Philippa Stefani) is full of energy and yet totally heartbreaking in act two. Dever’s vocal ability was clear in One Song Glory and much like Christina Modestou as Maureen, the two prove that you should never underestimate the understudy. Stefani is vocally strong throughout, particularly during Out Tonight and her heart-wrenching performance of Goodbye Love. One other performance that strikes a chord, is that of the selfless Angel, where actor Layton Williams’ dance ability is clear. Angels’ tragic downfall in the show from AIDS is depicted in the most creative and raw way, through movement and projection in Contact.
Larson’s showstealing number Take Me or Leave Me was exactly that: showstealing. Dramatizing the argument between Maureen (Christina Modestou) and Joanne (Shanay Holmes), it is a song that fully exploits two feisty female performers with vocals that soar across the auditorium. It leaves the audience in absolute awe and really is a high point in the production. One number, however, that does rival this is Ryan O’Gorman as the distraught and broken Collins in I’ll Cover You (Reprise). Vocally O’Gorman executes this number with sheer force and dexterity, bringing shivers to every member of the audience. Backed vocally by the ensemble, this number has a similar impact to the act two opener Seasons Of Love - an expositional number which really heightens the show’s morals, telling us what act two will bring.
On a design front, Anna Fleichle’s take on the classic raw, sparse and industrial RENT set really works, and the detailing of the neighborhood through spray paint, lampposts and street signs is what really sets this apart from being just a scaffolding structure. Aside from Proud’s stunningly slick, but rather abstract choreography, the set is probably the only other thing about the production that is not naturalistic, creating a false world on the stage for these naturalistic performances. Loren Elstein’s costume does not directly copy the cliché original Broadway costumes, but instead opts for a more realistic approach in what the characters are wearing, similarly in Rick Fisher’s lighting design it is not a rock show, and instead just a raw depiction of life in New York during the American AIDS epidemic.
This fresh, new naturalistic take on a classically Brechtian piece, comes directly from Bruce Guthrie’s direction which has done away with the ensemble standing behind mics in their musical interludes “Christmas bells are ringing…” and instead helps to tell the stories of these individuals through movement. It really is a production that places the storytelling of Larson’s work at its heart and this really helps those who do not know the show to understand its sometimes intangible plot.
What did let this production team down was the sound problems throughout act one with the cast being drowned out by the band and mics being lost, notably this was resolved in act two but was very distracting.
It is truly the most honest and clear depiction of Larson’s masterpiece you will ever see. Do not miss this production on its UK Tour, playing at the Belgrade until Saturday.
Review by Andrew Exeter.
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