It was 20 years ago that RENT premiered on Broadway, and for a while, the musical was the longest running in Broadway history as it ran for 12 years. It won a Pulitzer Prize and many Tony awards and has been in production somewhere more or less ever since.
Written by Jonathan Larson, the show is loosely based on Puccini’s La Boheme. Indeed the leading lady is called Mimi although nobody mentions that her tiny hand is frozen, as the show revolves around the poor and downtrodden that can’t pay their rent, have no heating and everyone is frozen. Larson, whom I believe had the misfortune to die of an Aids related illness before he saw the actual performance of his rock musical, strips off the veneer of decaying glamour of Bohemian Paris, and makes the music about people who live on the mean streets of New York. Most of the characters are gay, homeless, junkies, drug dealers or living with HIV or AIDS. Rent, really is an ensemble piece about sex, drugs and the lives of LGBTQ people.
It may be thought that this musical is a strange choice for Southend Operatic, but as they have evolved into a company consisting of a lot of young people, it is obvious that they wish to undertake the challenge of something different that relates to modern life. Sometimes it is good for musical companies to stretch themselves and take a risk and for this production it has paid off.
Set in a run-down tenement building, which the director Jonny Buxton, conveys excellently with just the use of scaffolding, furniture brought on or removed as required and the use of telephone calls acted out on stage. The large cast of young people give a high octane, highly energised performance that conveys just how much they are enjoying being a part of the production. In particular the ensemble singing and choreography by Sarah-Rose Dunn, is brilliant, with some good contra singing and eye popping dance moves. Amidst the poverty and homelessness there is a longing for something better – love, hope and friendship. The show chronicles the passage of one year – as it observes in its big hit, Seasons of Love, “Five Hundred 25 thousand 600 minutes.’ In the beginning it is Christmas somewhere, but not for these ‘outsiders,’ and as the show ends it is Christmas yet again, but now there has been death, love affair break downs and the community has begun to fall apart.
The plot revolves around a protest about selling out to a conglomerate, but the musical, like the operatic original, is really about the people. Larson’s plot has the doomed exotic dancer Mimi (Maddy Lahna) an addict, meeting a disconsolate Roger (Matt Miller) looking for someone to Light her Candle. Matt, as a wannabe song writer with his guitar, gives a very good understated performance and his love for Mimi is very moving. Meanwhile, his friend Mark (John Staines) watches life through the lens of his movie camera and effectively narrates the story. They all live with Tom Collins (Luke Brown), who falls for Angel (Jordi Tiney). The latter is played as a rather large transvestite with a little girl, red velvet dress and Dorothy’s red glitter shoes. How he manages to move in those heels and even do the splits is a miracle to me. His song with Luke, I’ll Cover You, is one of the best moments in the show. Also there is a very dynamic performance by Samantha Coles as Maureen the actress who is in a gay relationship with Joanne (Kirsty Buxton). However, there are tremendous performances by all the leads with strong singing voices and stage presence.
The young cast brings commitment and considerable talent, both as singers and actors. There is not a weak voice or shaky performance in the show. Larson’s pounding rock-based music under the direction of Ashton Moore raises the roof, with difficult songs belted out by the cast in a performance that is as professional as any West End show.
One of the set pieces that I particularly like is Tango Maureen with the ensemble dancers in their kinky outfits and a delightful turn by Kirsty Buxton.
The songs are not the kind that you hum as you come out of the theatre, One Song Glory, Another Day a comic love-hate duet Take Me or Leave Me, a celebration of life for La Vie Boheme, and the rousing finale Your Eyes, but they drive the show along. The most familiar one, Seasons of Love, is reprised at the end so that the audience can sing along.
At this performance the audience was clapping and tapping along. In fact, one woman asked me to tell the cast how much she enjoyed it and told me to tell them that they are wonderful.
If there is one criticism, it is sometimes a little difficult to follow the story line, but that is a fault of the musical not the production.
The show continues until Saturday 30th November with a matinee. Do not miss this excellent production, and Jonny Buxton should be very proud of his young ensemble cast.