“Meenan is on interstellar form. His lightning fast, fluid movements suggest he’d be the one to back in a 2-on-1 prize fight against Jackie Chan and Dame Edna.”
“Dove sono le Puccini?” The gondolier looked up excitedly, “le puttane?!” “Err… no mate. Le Puccini? Opera a palazzo.” The Venetian working-man seemed disappointed. “Non è così buono,” he muttered sadly as we glided off towards an intimate encounter with La bohème.
Italian Giacomo Puccini adapted the narrative from Frenchman Henri Murger’s vignettes about Paris’ bohemian denizens. A century after La bohème’s 1896 premiere in Turin, American Jonathan Larson’s rock musical reimagining opened on New York’s Broadway. From there Rent emerged for one of the longest, most commercially successful, runs in musical history. Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème have thus been around the block so many times, the Gondolier’s puttane might have seemed positively virginal by comparison.
It’s Christmas Eve in the East Village. It’s a time before hipsters. A filmmaker and a rock musician – two noble artists, both alike in poverty – are told by their ex-roommate, now their current landlord, that they must pay the back rent owed. Solemnly they refuse. Joe Christie (as filmmaker Mark) and Nitai Levi (as rock musician Roger) establish strong leads, demonstrating possession of the several narrative arcs, the prism through which Larson’s sketchy urban landscape emerges. Jonathan Ip as landlord Benny demonstrates a determined gravity that centres the action.
Rent’s cast of bohemian characters provide fertile ground for a company well-suited to clever character studies. As Tom Collins – the maverik, homosexual college professor – Benjamin Aluwihare stands out as one of those student performers you hope will graduate into the major league. It’s all the more impressive because he is sharing the stage, romance and tragedy with Scott Meenan (as Angel, Collins’ cross-dressing significant other).
Meenan is on interstellar form. His lightning fast, fluid movements suggest he’d be the one to back in a 2-on-1 prize fight against Jackie Chan and Dame Edna. Meenan is camp, courageous, charming and – above all – courteous – daring to share the limelight so as to shine more brightly.
Not since Lily Cade met India Summers has a sapphic combo been as hot as the pairing of Caroline Elms (as lesbian lawyer Joanne) and Roz Ford (as bisexual performance artist Maureen). Both have superb presence, a mastery of pace and comic timing. Together they’re an alchemy reminiscent of Candice Bergen in Murphy Brown, Carla Gugino in Spin City, or Moira Kelly in The West Wing.
If Rent was truly bohemian (rather than theatrical hand sanitizer) we might have seen Rachael Anderson tumbled into their heady mix in a ménage-à-hell-yeah. Anderson’s jaw dropping portrayal of erotic dancer Mimi slips the surly bonds of physicality, lifting this production into a godlike orbit, circling the clumsy trendiness of Lawson’s checklist re-rendering of La Belle Époque original.
Eilidh Bruce Bass’ costumes establish the production’s look and feel as high 90s – existing somewhere between when Fraiser stopped looking like Cheers, but before Friends stopped looking like Seinfeld. Her clever attention to detail provides a palette of subtle retrospection on the period, touching up where Rent’s oh-so earnest themes have faded. The costumes achieve the remarkable feat of blending with the set without being lost in it.
And it really is a brilliant set. The band are incorporated without being outsourced to a balcony or platform. The back lighting comes through grimy green industrial window panes, each one an individual tale of neglect underscoring the dramatic meaning rising from below. The ensemble draw the various levels together passing props up and down with never a fumble. The stage right lighting rig is part of the set. That tubular grey lattice – which in most productions needs to be blanked out by the mind’s eye – it’s hanging there, at an angle, bold as brass. Who’d have thunk it? Well Andrew McDivitt did and it’s why his set designs are worth the ticket price alone (and then some).
As musical theatre Rent is what it is from when it was. The songs aren’t especially catchy, the narrative arcs are a muddled rainbow, the characters are embalmed in worthy sentiment. Jonathan Larson’s tragic death on the opening night of his work in progress denied audiences the chance to see the tweaks and changes he might have made.
Still, it’s hard not to get excited when Footlight’s production time comes around. High professional standards abound, not least from the ensemble who supercharge everything with which they come into contact. First-timer Campbell Keith is first among equals for his infectious enthusiasm, commitment and drive.
For me, as an essentially sedentary being, watching this cast might be what a flightless penguin feels looking up at a flock of starlings – isn’t it marvellous! How do they co-ordinate like that? And what kind of fish do they catch in the sky?
Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 10 February)
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