Book / Music / Lyrics: Jonathan Larson
Director: Jake Norton
Reviewer: John Roberts
It’s hard not to applaud the ambitious young producers Claire Eggison, Daniel Jackson, Liam McMullan, and Fay Parkinson who make up new company Peak Productions. The company has been formed by music, theatre and entertainment management students while still studying at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. Even though this production of RENT lacks the finesse and polish that one would hope for, it shows a real promise for this fledgling company.
Jonathan Larson’s powerful musical was instrumental in changing the face of modern musical theatre; the lyrics and subject matter are profound and powerful. The emotion that is pumped through his soaring rock melodies and lyrics enthuse the production, with an energy that other productions find hard to emulate. It’s a shame that Larson himself never got to see the opening of his own musical that has made him a household name – dying the night before its workshop opening.
It’s Christmas Eve, 1989 – a group of bohemian artists are struggling to pay the rent, pressure is mounting on them to leave the building they have come to make their home and, as the group begins to make life-changing decisions, the constant shadow of the AIDS epidemic hangs notoriously over their heads… Little do they know how much 525,600 small minutes could mean to them and the relationships they hold.
What is instantly noticeable from the off with this production, directed by Jake Norton, is that so much of its staging has been knowingly taken from the original production. The stage design (Dylan Howells) of multi-levelled scaffolding on an open stage with TV screens littered around the stage is almost lifted piece by piece from the original staging and the comparisons don’t end there. Little creativity and thought have been given to the character design – the decisions here are lazy, to say the least.Why direct a production of a show and not put your own stamp on proceedings? Instead Norton and his team take the easy route and give us more of the same derivative ideas.
But what of the performances? Almost all of the cast come from various years at LIPA and attack the material full-tilt, but with that attack, plenty of subtly is lost. Norton directs this heavily white-washed production (never has NYC been whiter than Christmas) and at times over-sexualises its content and forgets that the show’s heart is about relationship, not gratification. Likewise, it’s a shame that Musical Director Callum Clarke, who shone through LIPA’s recent production of Witches of Eastwick, forgets the colour and shade within Larson’s material, allowing his cast to riff their way through the songs (If Larson wanted that, he would have written them in) and pushes his small and scattered on-stage band to pump out the music at an ear blistering level, which really impacts the shows softer more quieter moments – which may also account for many flat harmonies and note missing in larger ensemble numbers… but, believe it or not, that isn’t the show’s major fault.
That lies in the director Norton not being able to bring the truth out of the characters on stage, for a show that is about love, loss and grief, it feels on far too many occasions that the cast just can’t emotionally connect with the material – that’s not true for everyone on stage, though. Phil Teles Amaro steals the show as videographer Mark. He has an understated performance style that quietly conveys the troubles of the character. It’s also interesting to note he is one of the only company members not studying at LIPA. Lauren Waine brings out as much of the comedy in the role of Maureen, while Rachelle Diedricks is a convincing Joanne, but the most emotionally powerful connection to the material comes from the deep and delicious tones of Jordan Alexander as Collins whose rendition of the reprise of I’ll Cover You really brings tears to your eyes.
RENT is fast becoming the musical theatre version of Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis –every new company wants to produce it, but sadly brings nothing new to the production in terms of design, direction and character choices and that’s exactly what has happened with this production by Peak Productions.
Runs until 13 February 2016 | Image: Contributed