Writer: Jonathan Larson
Director: Bruce Guthrie
Reviewer: Chris Williams
In 2016, Rent – the Pulitzer Prize winning rock musical – celebrated its 20th anniversary. This new production embarked on a UK tour in celebration, stopping in Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre.
Based loosely on Puccini’s opera La Boheme – with our poets and painters modernised as a filmmaker or performance artist – Rent’s story deals with a group of Bohemian, artistic types living in New York City’s East Village. Living, loving and trying to pay their rent, all while trying to survive in the shadow of HIV/AIDS.
A lot has changed in those 20 years. The musical was originally praised for two of the characters with HIV being happy and positive, but it is not the death sentence that it once was and this makes the second act more powerful. Being set in the 1990s this could now become a period piece, yet the main themes in Rent are timeless; inclusion and tolerance, creating a community (a family) and choosing love over fear.
There is not one bad performance or voice in the cast. That being said, Layton Williams’ gender-fluid drag queen, Angel, owns this production. Williams embodies the role and you cannot take your eyes off him. His number, Today 4 U, sees him twirl, back flip and do the splits across the stage (all while singing). You’re challenged not to be instantly in love with the character as Williams glamorously lights up the stage.
Ryan O’Gorman gives a stand-out performance as Tom Collins, who has a beautiful love story with Angel. Philippa Stefani (Mimi) has such range, singing so beautifully on Light My Candle and then the grungy rock of Out Tonight. Jenny O’Leary, the understudy who went on in the character of Joanne, has such a beautiful voice but also great comedy acting, and she can dance as she proves during the number, Tango: Maureen.
The set is a mess, a well designed mess full of bare scaffold that effectively represents the griminess of New York’s East Village at the time. A tree and a lamppost add a certain charm to the set and remind us that it’s a street.
Choreographically, the show as a whole doesn’t really astonish, but there are highlights such as the act one closing number, La Vie Boheme, and some heartbreaking moments in the second act.
Being in the audience for Rent is the first time that the theatre has made this reviewer cry. The man behind Rent, writer, musician and lyricist Jonathan Larson, tragically died of an aortic aneurysm just weeks before the musical’s premiere performance. With a piece of theatre like this it is shame that we didn’t get to see what else he could do.
Runs until 8 April 2017 | Image: Contributed