Rent musical review 2014

31st July 2014


Curve, Leicester

Rent, a musical by Jonathan Larson

Directed by Paul Kerryson

Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson

A curve Community Production

Rating: ****

Jak Skelly (left) and Tim Wilson (right) and the chorus of 'Rent' Photo: Pamela Raith photography
Jak Skelly (left) and Tim Wilson (right) and the chorus of ‘Rent’
Photo:  Pamela Raith photography

The premature death of Jonathan Larson in 1996 at the age of 35 was as tragic as that of his character Angel. Rent is a musical that has moments of tear-jerking angst but also moments of joyous celebration, so it echoes the traditions of opera whilst being a musical in the best modern genre of Broadway.

Those of us who saw The Water Babies (Curve, May 2014) would have acquired a taste for modern musicals that prepared us for tonight’s performance of Rent, with its vibrant music, set numbers and youthful energy, just as West Side Story (Curve, July 2011) or Fame (DeMontfort Hall 2014) had done. Curve has embraced modern themes, as we saw with the musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Curve, February 2011) as much as with the production of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet (March 2011) or the very musical music productions of Mid Summer Night’s Dream (Curve 2011) or Twelfth Night (Curve September 2013). Curve’s current offerings of Annie and Rent are both community productions, drawing young talent from the local community but, as is always the case, you could not have realised that if you didn’t know in advance. In terms of the quality of what you get from the stage, there is little difference between a professional cast and a community ensemble. Curve’s community productions have never been amateurish.

Larson received posthumous awards for Rent which was a long-running success both in Broadway and The West End. The tragic death of the composer and playwright the morning after the preview of Rent was echoed in the show when one of the leading characters – Angel – dies of AIDS. Larson died of a heart attack, resulting from an undiagnosed disease, but his musical went on to become one of the most successful and celebrated works of the 1990s.

Tonight’s performance at Curve received a standing ovation from the sell-out crowd and you could tell, by being there, just what a buzz there was in the audience throughout the show. The story follows the hopes, dreams and relationships of a set of young creatives struggling to survive in the East Village of New York. Like so many twenty-somethings of the time, they have to contend with poverty, landlord’s chasing them for the rent, drug dealers, hunger and cold. Against this backdrop of hardship and deprivation, the group display a resilience supported by friendships, relationships and camaraderie. Like the production that followed it – Fame – a central theme of Rent’s story-line is the ups and downs and ins and outs of the relationships between some of its leading characters.

The leading characters from 'Rent' Photo Pamela Raith Photograpy
The leading characters from ‘Rent’
Photo Pamela Raith Photograpy

Wannabe film-maker Mark Cohen (Tim Wilson) has dumped by Maureen. Rock guitarist Roger Davis (Jak Skelly) is HIV+ and his girlfriend April killed herself when she found that she also had the disease. Tom Collins (Matthew Browne) shares a love interest with a young drag queen Angel (Keir Barradell). Mimi Marquez (Lola McKinnon), a drug addict and night-club dancer, is the love interest of Roger and like him is HIV+. Maureen Johnson (Tabatha Pegg) is in a lesbian relationship with Joanne Jefferson (Sharan Phull)… and so it goes on. It’s a pretty tangled scenario that unravels as the plot develops and you have to pay attention to keep up with whose doing what to whom.

Jak Skelly as Roger and Tim Wilson as Mark with Christopher McCann in the background. Photo: Pamella Raith photography
Jak Skelly as Roger and Tim Wilson as Mark with Christopher McCann in the background.
Photo: Pamella Raith photography

The leading characters are supported by a chorus of around 25 singers, a bit like a Greek Tragedy, so that at several points during the performance there could be upwards of thirty artists on the stage. It’s a show that has set pieces – duets between the leading protagonists, full-cast choral numbers, monologues and several sessions where the mothers of various characters are on stage, phoning their offspring from various parts of North America, trying to find out if their little darlings are ok.

Jak Skelly and Lola Mckinnon. Photo: Pamela Raith photography
Jak Skelly and Lola Mckinnon.
Photo: Pamela Raith photography

Rent captures much of what the 1990s was about and, like the opera around which it was loosely based (Puccini’s La bohéme), it is a tale of love, tragedy and the lives of young Bohemians, some of which end in death, against the back cloth of life in Manhattan (just as Puccini’s opera was based in the Latin quarter of Paris.) The story is racy, the lyrics uncompromising in the use of colloquial language and the atmosphere sparkles with the lustful energy of youth.

Kerryson’s production brought all this alive. The music was played by a live band, the solo vocals and choral passages were impressive and the sound system at Curve better than anything you will hear at any theatre in the UK. Like all musical productions at Curve, production values are uppermost. Musically, Rent provides salsa, be-bop, reggae and the kind of R and B often associated with Motown, although it has been described as a ‘rock opera’, but with only a slight resemblance to The Rocky Horror show (Curve, October 2013.)

All the performances were excellent but those of Jak Skelly as Roger, Tim Wilson as Mark and Lola McKinnon as Mimi were astonishingly good. Keir Barradell’s portrayal of Angel was amazing, backed by that of Matthew Browne as Tom Collins. Tabatha Pegg’s portrayal of Maureen, the seductive stripper and S&M night-club dancer, drew a strong appreciation from the audience for her lavishly salacious performance. It was the choral scenes that I found particularly engaging, adding in a strong vocal layer and enhancing the musical quality of the show through both acts. Sensational performances from the leading artists and the vocal crew, this was an ace production that glittered with musical fireworks.

Rent was an excellent show and production; well worth seeing. A not-to-be-missed event.

Rent ran at Curve on 1st August, 4th and 7th August and Annie from 2nd to 10th August