Loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, RENT follows the life of a group of creative friends fighting to overcome poverty in New York City’s East Village in the early 90s. Written and composed by Jonathan Larson in 1993, RENT opened on Broadway in 1996. Larson tragically passed away the night before the first preview of the show, explaining the lack of rewrites and the mediocre ending. Nonetheless, RENT went on to be one of the longest-running musicals on Broadway and had a huge cultural impact.
While not perfect, RENT is one of my favourite musicals. I walked into the Union Theatre on Saturday night with excitement. The minimalistic sets, composed of a mix of scaffolding, old rock band posters and traffic signs, resembled the original Broadway staging. The band was visible upstage, in the left corner, and an old-fashion phone booth was located downstage, on the right-hand side. This simple and cold decor set the mood from the start.
James Lugton as the awkward narrator Mark Cohen, and Caleb Ballinger as the once-successful Roger Davis, opened the show with the title number RENT. The costumes stayed true to the original Broadway version and Lugton played a believable Mark Cohen.
Unfortunately, the sound balance was off and the band was hard to hear. Today 4 U was inaudible, causing Angel, a flamboyant, HIV-positive drag queen played by William Strafford, to fall out of time. The issue seemed to be fixed later on in the show and the band, under the leadership of Kirrily Swatton, sounded amazing.
The show continued, introducing more iconic characters including Mimi Marquez, a young HIV-positive club-dancer and drug addict, portrayed by Holly Piney. Piney did a wonderful job giving life to this trouble-minded character and remained vocally strong throughout the entire show. Although there was an obvious lack of chemistry between her and Ballinger’s Roger, she made up for it by giving an impressive performance in Light My Candle, Out Tonight and Another Day.
On the other hand, Stafford’s Angel and Lewis Forrester’s Tom Collins had me shed a tear during their passionate duet I’ll Cover You. Even though he struggled reaching the lower notes, Forrester seemed to understand his character well and his overall performance was powerful. Stafford was adorable and touching as Angel, although his make-up was too minimal. He is a drag queen after all, not just a man in a wig.
Kelsey Rettino, portraying the Harvard-educated lesbian-lawyer Joanne Jefferson, was one of the highlights of the show. She was witty, sassy and her vocal performance was strong. She also showed off her dance moves in Tango Maureen, during an impressive routine with Lugton. Her love interest, Maureen Johnson, was portrayed by Claire Ferguson. Ferguson was absolutely fantastic as Maureen. Her adaption of Over the Moon was incredible: she was really playful and formed a strong connection with the audience. She offered strong performances during iconic numbers such as La Vie Boheme and Take Me or Leave Me.
The rather large ensemble was generally good, although hard to hear due to the lack of microphones. Special mention has to go to Lydia Bell, who played several roles as well as being assistant director. Her performance as HIV-positive Steve (re-named Stevie) was touching in Life Support, a number about living with AIDS. She later came on as Mark’s mother, the hilarious Mrs. Cohen. Tombi Lloyd should also be commended for her hilarious portrayal of the minor character Alexi Darling.
The overall direction of the show, while very much inspired by the original Broadway production, was good. I was worried that the Union Theatre would be too large for such a small-scale musical, but director Kate Douglas made it work and used the space efficiently. However, character work was cruelly lacking. While some performers had a very good understanding of their characters and the socio-economic climate of the early 90s, most actors seemed to be taking the whole production as a joke.
Loz McIntosh and Katrina Bell’s choreography was simple but enjoyable. The lighting design complemented the bare and cold sets quite well, reinforcing the bleak atmosphere of the production. Stage management needs to be commended for quick and efficient scene transitions.
Overall, Whitley College offered an energetic and touching production of Larson’s RENT. While the direction was lacking original ideas, the show was fun to watch and offered a few incredible numbers performed by young and talented actors.
Whitley College’s production of RENT ran from August 18th – 20th in the Union Theatre.