RENT reviewed by Maryanne Cathro
Originally posted on Theatreview
Rent – they can't pay it and they won't pay it.
Rent is a story based loosely on Puccini's La Bohème, about a group of friends surviving poverty, AIDS and gentrification in New York's Lower East Side in the early 1990s. These are the Bohemians of the end of the Millennium; making art and making love while property developers try to take away their spaces and AIDS robs them of their future.
It is so great to finally have this piece of iconic American musical theatre here in Wellington, directed by Ben Emerson with music director Bruno Shirley and choreographer Esther Welsh. First shown in 1994, it opened on Broadway in 1996 and ran for 12 years. Jonathan Larson wrote Rent based on his own experiences of life in the Lower East Side; unfortunately he died the day before the show opened and never saw what a success it would become.
The Wellington Footlights Society is a cooperative of talented young performers, putting on the shows they want to do and we rarely get to see. Rent is a great vehicle for their talents. The stage at the Whitereia Performing Arts School on Vivian St has the space and height to carry it off.
It is also, unfortunately, a difficult space acoustically, with the audience spread widely across the front. Excellent vocals are often hard to hear over the band and important information about the plot is lost in the process. I fervently hope this imbalance will be fixed before the season goes any further, as unamplified voices and an amplified rock band do not sit well together.
Therefore it is not surprising that the musical highlights are the belting numbers and the ensemble singing. My favourite number is the soulful vocal showdown, ‘Take Me or Leave Me' with Stacey O'Brien as Maureen and Laura Gardner as Joanne. Aretha and Ella would have been proud!
One of many beautiful ensemble moments is the opening number of Act Two – ‘Seasons of Love'. How do you describe a year? 525,600 minutes? As I look down the line of performers singing their hearts out, every face, every body is giving it their all. Likewise the street-savvy, cynical Homeless chorus with their twisted Christmas carols are delightful, convincing, physical and funny.
Do they nail it? Yes they do. It is a big, complex, emotional musical in the best tradition of modern American theatre; lots of big feelings are sung out: echoes of that operatic heritage. They capture the light and the shade of the show – get the laughs where there ought to be laughs and cause a few damp eyes in the right moments too.
All in all this is the kind of work Footlights are becoming known for: a fusion of excellent ensemble work, energy, enthusiasm and talent.