Known as the show that changed musical theatre forever, RENT exploded onto Broadway in 1996 after the tragic premature death of its composer, Jonathan Larson, the night before previews. With a new approach to musical theatre, the sung-through megamusicals of the eighties were to be replaced with the, hip, rock scores. Sadly, this new production at the ADC does not have the same spark.
Headed by Daniel Ellis and Xander Pang, two incredible actors with precise and characteristic vocal styles, the cast of RENT are truly spectacular. Especially the ensemble which multirole throughout the performance. Special attention should be paid to the trinity of Homeless People who sing ‘Christmas Bells’ – their harmonies are tight, and their tones perfectly match one another. The actors are obviously having fun with their vocal lines, especially Ashley Cooper, who’s performance as Mrs Cohen is virtuosic with riffs and runs. James Critchley’s bass-baritone range is also particularly special. However, RENT, in most aspects, falls into the hole of recreating the productions that have gone before it. Jaden Tsui’s Angel is particularly sympathetic, with her relationship with Brandon Lino’s Collins being one of the highlights of the show, however it feels as if Tsui’s vocal range was too low for the traditional interpretation of Angel. However, in the lower range, Tsui really shines, and a baritone transfemme Angel is something that would be fantastic to see! Owen Igiehon’s Benny also suffered the same fate, with a much clearer tone in his upper register.
There were also some lovely images created on-stage – the rack of lights at the back of the set added a lovely atmosphere to certain scenes, and the smoke that covered the theatre as we entered really places you in 90s New York. I also found joy in finding Easter eggs in the posters that cover the back walls – see if you can find a poster for the show that inspired Larson to write RENT!
The direction, both theatrical and musical, however, is sadly where the production fell short. Along with creating the same vibe as the original Broadway production, the scenes are very static and blocky, especially when the entire cast is onstage, with some of the singers being blocked by others. Solo scenes often feel awkward due to the wonky blocking, such as ‘Out Tonight’, which required Lauren Lopez’s Mimi to travel to nearly every point on the stage. This insistence to use the entire space also impacted on scenes with two characters, where sometimes choreography fell flat due to the large amount of space used. However, the end of Act One was incredibly tight and joyous to watch, with the choreography very effectively drawing the eye to each singer for their line and action.
In Act Two, the pacing started to drag, and the increased number of solo songs failed to keep some audience member’s interest. However, the sniffles in the house nearing the final scenes shows that the performances from the actors certainly bypassed the sometimes uninventive directing and blocking.
Musically, however, the play does start to slightly fall apart. The mixing was messy and inconsistent, to the point that it seemed as if the drums weren’t miked for the entire first half of the show. Songs with a large musical sound, such as the title song and ‘What You Own’, often sounded flat and empty. However, there was a fantastic characteristic guitar sound, which isn’t present in the score, which sounded delicious. The keyboarded duo of Drew Sellis and Bolin Dai were very talented and communicative, performing Collins’ solo song in Act Two with tear jerking honesty.
The divisions between the live band and the pre-recorded cues were also very obvious and sometimes late, which I reckon is first performance nerves! This is an issue with the original show, but it is obvious that songs like Today 4 U and Contact are pastiches of New York Ballroom culture, which has had a resurgence in popular culture after the TV show POSE, which was used heavily in the application packs for the show. It is disappointing to see that more of the influence from this subculture hasn’t made its way into this production.
There were some lovely details in the set, such as fairy lights above the band and in wine bottles, and costume, such as Angel’s garter that held drum sticks. As mentioned before, the large wall of lights were also very atmospheric and strategically used. However, some of the other lighting felt gaudy and overly complex, with multiple changes, which left some cast members singing in the dark. The large use of colours also didn’t add much to the overall production, and were mostly distracting. However, there were some particularly tasteful spotlights of bright white, which, with stage fog, created a very nice stage picture.
I ultimately feel, therefore, that a strong cast were slightly let down by stock directing and messy technical aspects, but I still had a very enjoyable evening which introduced me to some fantastical musical talent which hasn’t been seen yet. I do hope to be seeing these faces again, especially Tsui, Cooper, and Olukotun!
Rent is on at the ADC Theatre from the 9th-12th of February at 7:45pm. Tickets may be purchased here: https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/musical/rent/