|Image Source: Ents 24|
Date: February 28 2017
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre
Currently on a 20th anniversary tour of the UK, Rent quickly became one of the most successful shows on Broadway upon its original 1996 debut. It has attracted a major following worldwide, particularly amongst a younger audience (there appeared to be a lot of students in attendance for the latest Liverpool presentation), so suffice it to say that expectations were fairly high heading into this one.
I found it difficult, however, to follow the lead story. The show is performed almost entirely in song; only around 5% of the production, if that, uses dialogue or physical performance as opposed to music. Partly due to this, and partly because we are introduced to a variety of characters and situations in a whirlwind fashion, it takes a good while to understand what is happening. It's only towards the end of the first half when one can truly put everything together, although the second half does make everything a lot more clear to those who may not have read up on the plot beforehand.
In a nutshell, set in the 1980s in the heart of New York City, the story explains that roommates Mark (Billy Cullum) and Roger (Ross Hunter) are struggling with paying their rent to landlord and former friend Benny (Javar La'Trail Parker). Their friend Collins (Ryan O'Gorman) is mugged, but is found in the street by Angel (Jordan Laviniere), and there is an immediate spark between the two; we learn that the two happen to be gay and that they are both HIV positive. Add to that the fact that Roger is also HIV positive, and it becomes harder for him to spark up a new relationship of his own with the flirtatious Mimi (Philippa Stefani), who is also HIV positive, since his previous girlfriend had committed suicide partly due to her having the exact same health predicament. We soon see that there is a common friendship between all involved (except Benny), as well as Maureen (Lucie Jones) and Joanne (Shanay Holmes), a lesbian couple who are planning a protest against Benny and similar authorities who have forced a lot of people onto the streets, having threatened to do the same to the likes of Mark and Roger.
The protest, which is going to take place on Christmas Eve, eventually leads to a full-on riot, but the outlandish and flamboyant social circle of friends are ultimately brought closer together and all have big ambitions moving forward, whether that they within their relationships or their hopeful careers (Roger wants to produce a rock song, Mark hopes to become a filmmaker and Collins wants to open a restaurant in Santa Fe). There are some tiffs around New Year's time where we see Mimi needing a fix from her drug-dealer in order to cope. But after Mark provides a quick catch-up of everybody's situations on Valentine's Day, the tone of the show becomes more sombre when we learn that Angel's health issues, partly brought about by his flamboyance and his carefree attitude towards sex, have caught up to him, and he is about to succumb to HIV. This scene brings the friends together, and in the aftermath, we see the other relationships endure struggles of their own. The show comes full circle by concluding on Christmas Eve once again, but not before another major plot event involving Mimi which ensures one more struggle for the characters to work through. Incidentally, during the show-closing bow, Philippa Stefani seemed extremely emotional and overcome with the nature of Mimi's plight.
As mentioned, this is all told through music, meaning that many of the numbers (such as Rent, You Okay Honey and Take Me Or Leave Me) are conversational as opposed to "true" songs. And there are a lot of them; some, such as the Voice Mail scenes, are brief, but needless to say that there are a lot of songs written for this show. This is in part because the plot of Rent is loosely based on the opera show La Bohème (with HIV being the primary illness rather than tuberculosis; incidentally, La Bohème is coming to Liverpool Empire on Friday March 24), and of course operas use music - in a different style, of course - to tell a story and move it along. So, whilst the all-music approach within the rock genre is unorthodox and occasionally hard to understand, it does make sense when you consider the inspiration for the show.
The performances by the cast are excellent: it's hard enough to perform in a theatre setting for such a major production, but when the dialogue, physicality and music are moving at 100 miles an hour, so to speak, it must be incredibly difficult to learn all of the lines, all of the dances, all of the stage directions etc, so it's a real credit to all involved that everyone is utterly believable and is performing to a high standard. It's hard to pinpoint one cast member as shining brighter than the others, although I should give an extra mention to Lucie Jones for playing the OTT and rather sexual Maureen character; her performance of Hey Diddle Diddle as part of a one-woman show may be baffling to those who don't know the story of Rent, but it's pretty memorable nonetheless and is a perfect snapshot of Rent as a whole.
That's because Rent is, well, bizarre. The rock-music approach and bleak portrayal of American life reminded me of last year's American Idiot, but the over-the-top nature of everything, from the sexuality to the dancing to the lack of interest as to what society thinks of them, reminded me too of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Unlike these two shows, though, the story is a lot harder to follow here, and it is way more unpredictable; it will be halfway through a typical rock number which may be explaining one of the story arcs, and out of nowhere it will suddenly break into a mass, almost chaotic, dance routine which is related to a different song altogether. The second half is more structured, but the almost depressing feel of the later scenes don't enhance the viewing experience, even if they are necessary to tell the story in the required manner.
Perhaps the best thing about Rent is its approach to homosexuality. At least four of the characters are gay - two males, two females - and many of the characters are HIV positive. This, of course, was at a time when the real dangers of unprotected sex and AIDS were only just coming into the forefront, so the carefree sexual activities will have come before people realised why such an approach to life wouldn't be the most advisable from a health standpoint. But it also came before homosexuality was truly accepted; when the lead characters are interacting with each other, it is not an issue, but when they happen to interact with other characters, such as the local priest, their homosexuality is met with scorn. These subjects were a sign of the times; the wild sexual freedom of the 1960s and 1970s had been a factor in the lives of the central characters, but they were now facing the harsh realities that they would pay the price with having shorter lives caused by developing AIDS and dying quickly afterwards (except Mark, who points out that he is likely to be the lone survivor since he is not HIV positive). And whilst homosexuality is certainly not a bad thing, there was still a negative stigma related to it at that time, which perhaps explains why the characters who are gay decide to rub it in society's face, so to speak; they embrace it, rather than hide from it. That all of this is explained in a manner which never denigrates the characters nor those who may have seen the show and are or were in the same position is a testament to the writing and to the performances by the cast. Of course, if this story were being told through 2017 eyes, the reactions by society would be very different, but this show emphasises what attitudes were like at that time. I did think, though, that due to the somewhat adult nature of the production, a disclaimer for people of a certain age beforehand may have helped, since certain scenes may be very difficult to explain to any kids who might have been in the crowd.
This is a very hard show for me to summarise. I guess the best way to describe it is that whether or not you enjoy Rent will depend on your personal tastes, not about the subject matters but about the way in which the story is told; all-music, at a breathtaking pace, with loads of sudden shifts and a frantic nature to dance moves and to the story in general. I feel that the performances were of a very high standard, and that the way in which AIDS and homosexuality are handled is superb. But I personally was not a fan of the general structure of the show; although it lasted 140 minutes, which was long enough, it could have benefitted from 5-10 minutes of quick, dialogue-only scenes between the longer musical numbers just to give the audience a chance to breathe and assess what exactly is going on.
Although I detailed parts of the story earlier on, this was with assistance; unless you knew about Rent beforehand, one could not have come to the same conclusions without thoroughly researching the show in its aftermath. It is also very Americanised in that you can tell this has been written to target the American audience; if it had been written for a British audience, I feel the structure would have been very different. This isn't a criticism (why wouldn't it target Americans?), but it's an observation that English folk attending this show should bear in mind. I mentioned earlier that a lot of students were on hand, and I feel it would be excellent for them should they be studying theatre or drama, since it's undoubtedly a tightly-written production which manages to raise laughs and elicit tears in equal amount.
Overall, though, Rent wasn't particularly to my tastes. The rating below is a mix of what I feel were outstanding productions and a storytelling approach which I felt was very hard to comprehend. It's not to say that Rent is a bad show at all, as its success over the course of two decades emphasises. I would suggest that those with a true liking for American-style productions, the 18-30 crowd and especially those who are interested in how AIDS and homosexuality affected American society in the 1980s will not only like this show, but that they should see this show. For older theatregoers, though, you may come away with more questions than answers, and possibly a headache too! Final analysis: an undoubtedly strong show with an excellent cast, but not a show that will be to everybody's tastes.
Overall Rating: 7/10 - Respectable