Some emotional shows just grab you. They speak your language. They reach your heart. They stay with you for ever. Others just don’t. It was on 19th August 1999 that Mrs Chrisparkle and I finally got to see Rent for the first time. We were in Row F of the Shaftesbury Theatre’s Royal Circle. For many people that would be a great seat, but for me that’s just too far from the stage for me properly to connect with what’s going on. We both share one chief memory of that original production – that the music was way too heavily over-amplified. It was the first time we’d ever experienced a show where the production team simply didn’t trust the performers’ voices to reach the back of the theatre. From the resulting sound distortion we didn’t hear half the lyrics. My other main memory is that Angel’s death was really moving; and that when he gets “resurrected” at the end to join everyone else on stage it filled your heart with gladness. The rest of the show – I could basically take or leave.
But this is a show that never goes away. It has a massive following, the “Rent-Heads”; and has been hugely successful around the world. A winner of four Tony awards, the original New York production ran for twelve years, making it the ninth longest running Broadway show at the time. And when I heard that Rent was making a comeback here in its “in Concert” format, I thought that was an excellent idea, and that we should give it another chance to impress.
We weren’t quite sure what to expect. Our only other experience of “unstaged” performances is with the Lost Musicals at Sadlers Wells, where dignified performers in dinner jackets sit around in a semi-circle with their script on a clipboard, taking to the floor to act out a scene with no scenery when the pianist cues them in. I didn’t think Rent in Concert would be quite like that, but who knows? Anyway, when you enter the auditorium you see that there is a very useable set with steps and ledges, scaffolds and seats, and cubbyholes for the musicians to inhabit, in full view of the audience, but separate from the action. Additionally there’s a video screen at the back used to give an extra sense of setting, and also so that you can see what the character Mark is filming. It’s a really well thought out design, and gives plenty of space for some of those multi-character numbers where people are in different locations but singing the same song together.
There are many very good things about this show. The structure is clever and satisfying, with its allusions to Puccini’s La Bohème, its parallel characters and songs, and how it modernised 19th century suffering from consumption to 20th century suffering from AIDS. It also forcibly reminded Mrs C and me of the musical Hair, with its themes of dissatisfied youth and protest, and the worries of parents that their children aren’t living decent lives. Also, the music is superb; Jonathan Larson’s tunes are very stirring and memorable, and they are performed really well by the band, led by Scott Alder on the occasion we saw it. The big set piece numbers are sung beautifully, especially Seasons of Love, La Vie Bohème, and the finale, No Day But Today, although I have to say I wasn’t half so moved this time when the resurrected Angel came back on stage. I was very impressed with the wardrobe department too – Mimi’s matching leopard skin coat and boots were perfect in their downmarket sexy sluttiness, Angel’s transformation from supermarket t-shirt and jeans to camp Santa was catwalk-amazing, Benny’s flash suits told you all you needed to know about his wealth; and the plain winter clothes of the rest of the cast were both realistic and served as a good contrast to the others.
On the whole, the performances are also great. Kerry Ellis has such a superb stage presence, and although I wouldn’t necessarily say I was a “fan”, I thought the stage brightened up every time she came on. Her performance with Rory Taylor of “Light My Candle” was particularly stunning, but I thought she was excellent in everything she did. Another performer with great stage presence is Mykal Rand, whom we last saw as a glamorous and camp Electra in Starlight Express, and he plays Collins with great emotion, terrific singing and surprising vulnerability for a big bloke. Interestingly, he was one of the ensemble in the 1999 production we saw – I guess this show is in his blood. I also really enjoyed the performances of Ruthie Stephens as Maureen and Lisa-Marie Holmes as Joanne, both separately and together. For me, Maureen’s “Over the Moon” protest-performance song simply goes on too long, but Miss Stephens did it cheekily and quirkily, and the audience loved it. Joanne’s duet with Mark, the “Tango Maureen” was crisply and amusingly delivered; and the scene where you see Joanne and Maureen’s relationship start to crumble, “Take me or Leave me” was absolutely spot-on. Kenny Thompson has a superb singing voice as Benny and you could hear every word – a rarity in this show; and there was great support from all the members of the ensemble.
But it’s that lack of clarity of the lyrics that is my real bugbear. The music, both instruments and vocal, is still very over-amplified so that you can only hear about half the lyrics to many of the more raucous numbers. This probably isn’t an issue for the Rent-Heads who know it back to front and inside-out already. But to people like Mrs C and me, this is a major stumbling block. Presumably the producers realise this, as the programme contains a very detailed synopsis of the entire show; I guess they simply expect you not to follow the words properly. We read the synopsis closely, before the show and during the interval, but even then you still can’t remember every plot development (and there are lots); so we were still faffing around trying to make head or tail of what was going on from time to time. This was particularly annoying in the song “Contact”, because, once again, I couldn’t hear the lyrics so I pulled out the programme and tried to read the appropriate part of the synopsis (white print on black background in dim lighting, not very helpful), failed, then looked back at the stage to find that Angel had already snuffed it and I never noticed. They’re using the over-amplification as an almost Brechtian device to distance the audience from the action – making the substance subsidiary to the style.
Another example of this is the really harsh lighting effects. I’m all for dramatic lighting, but you have moments where a number of really glaring lights are projected right into the audience’s eyes, and not just for a split second, but for what feels like ages. It’s very uncomfortable, painful almost, so that you have to put your hand to your forehead to save your eyes. Perhaps they should issue us with sun visors. Bizarrely though, whilst the audience is overlit, some members of the cast are underlit at times, with them speaking or singing in the dark so that you can’t tell who it is who’s talking. I think the Lighting Design team need to go back to school.
However, there’s no doubt that the audience absolutely adored it and that it got a standing ovation from most sections of the audience. I did enjoy it, but something about this show irks me too. I reject the allegation that it’s because I’m “too old” for it – I was once 19 you know, and I remember it clearly! I think it’s just one of those shows that, for some reason, just doesn’t speak to me. If you’re a Rent-Head you’ll love it; and there’s no doubt that the talented performers and musicians absolutely fling their hearts and souls into it. There are still another eight dates on this tour, so if you think you’d like it, go for it!