Billy Cullum (Mark Cohen), Ross Hunter (Roger Davis), Ryan O’Gorman (Tom Collins), Javar La’Trail Parker (Benjamin Coffin III), Layton Williams (Angel Schunard), Philippa Stefani (Mimi Marquez), Lucie Jones (Maureen Johnson), Shanay Holmes (Joanne Jefferson). More here.
A modernised version of the opera La Boheme, Rent offers a rock based musical study of the lives of an eclectic group of rebellious young New Yorkers ‘living in America at the end of the millennium’, multiple of whom are HIV positive. It’s a musical charged with the fleetingness of life, spontaneity of friendship and looming inevitability of death; ironically so given the sudden passing of its composer and writer Jonathan Larson the night before it’s first off-broadway preview.
Set in a single Christmas period, act one is a masterpiece in song based character introductions as we see a web of friends form around narrator and filmmaker Mark (Billy Cullum). The most transcending of those characters being the HIV positive ‘drag queen’ Angel who is brought to life with unwavering integrity by Layton Williams who, beyond stealing the show with his sassy splits and flips, truthfully depicts a person with a formidable ability to love generously and live out loud. In light of this, the wistful duet ‘I’ll Cover You’ between Angel and his lover Collins (Ryan O’Gorman) is a real highlight. The rest of the young cast, including the ensemble who competently take on minor character parts of their own, don’t disappoint. Lucie Jones in particular packs a real punch as she bursts onto the scene in a confident portrayal of the bisexual activist Maureen in the surreal protest song ‘Over the Moon’.
The turbulent second act spans a year in the life of the group; setup by the iconic number ‘Seasons of Love’, its themes of love, loss and facing death head on had me emotionally floored from the outset. It’s here in the more treacherous scenes that Philippa Stefani‘s portrayal of the junkie dancer (and love interest to musician Rodger) Mimi really comes into its own. She’s devastatingly good in the role, finding nuances in the character that hadn’t occurred to me before.
There is nothing showy about director Bruce Gunthrie’s production. Grounded in reality by Anna Fleischle’s simple but versatile scaffolding clad production design, it rightly focuses on the emotional gut of the work without sensationalising the fate of any of the characters. Rent isn’t a perfect musical, its ending is comically abrupt, but its pitfalls are overshadowed by its beautifully infiltrating score. This production is a stunning vehicle for its vigorously sad but ultimately uplifting message. It stays with you, making you reflect on your own existence in a new, brighter, light. Isn’t that what art is all about?
Overall, I give Rent a rating of 5/5.