Review: Rent – vital, muscular musical theatre

Erin Harrington reviews Rent, book / music / lyrics by Jonathan Larson, directed by Lara Macgregor, at The Court Theatre, Friday 19 November 2022.

The Court Theatre has had a patchy year. Many shows were cancelled, mucked about or rescheduled, and the year’s standout production – The Māori Sidesteps, wonderful – was chronically underattended. But their summer production of Jonathan Larson’s 1996 cult musical Rent feels like a bold invitation to audiences. Director Lara Macgregor, movement director Shane Anthony, and musical director Richard Marrett offer a muscular, vital production that showcases the best of the theatre’s talents.

Rent very loosely adapts Puccini’s 1896 opera La bohème, transplanting its story of bohemian life and tragic love to the East Village of New York City in 1989.  A raggedy group of found family and have-nots – impoverished artists, stragglers, addicts, outcasts – scrape together a living, squatting in derelict buildings. Disaffected filmmaker Mark (Ben Freeth) frames the show as he documents the lives of those around him and struggles with his sense of purpose. Grieving songwriter Roger (James Bell) and sex worker Mimi (Monique Clementson) navigate a passionate, fraught relationship. Anarchist philosopher Collins (Cameron Clayton) and vibrant drag queen Angel (Bailey Dunnage aka Aubrey Haive) fall in love. Performance artist (and Mark’s ex) Maureen (Jane Leonard) and her new girlfriend, lawyer Joanne (Anna Francesca Armenia) stage protests against gentrification. Benny (Elijah Williams), once their friend and now their yuppie landlord, threatens to throw them all out. Death is in the air: the HIV/AIDS crisis rages around them. The characters navigate their illnesses and those of their loved ones in different ways. Some fall into nihilism and class A oblivion, some form hopeful communities of care, and others drift in and out as privilege allows. Scenes in AIDS support groups and heartfelt full company numbers about love and connection remain some of the most potent of the show.

The cast is absolutely stacked with some of the best trans-Tasman talent available, and all approach their roles with energy, empathy, and an eye for detail. Each performer is given an MVP moment; watching Clementson belt the hell out of “Out Tonight” while pole dancing upside down from scaffolding meters off the floor is worth the price of entry alone. Mimi and Roger’s impassioned “Without You” also earns a loud and entirely deserved ‘wow!’ from an audience member. The core cast is supported by a spectacular ensemble, almost all of whom act as understudies. For once, everyone’s on the A Team. Together, the company create a fully fleshed out social world where all the relationships, from background characters to comic cameos, feel authentic, although some of the pathos of people’s parents, who pop up on the answering machine hunting down their kids, is sidelined in the name of broad character comedy. From the perspective of labour and sustainability, it’s also excellent to see the theatre figuring out a way to plan ahead for illness or impairment given this has been a catastrophic issue in the past – and this is a show that’s hard on people’s voices.

The design of the show is cohesive, and indicates again the extraordinary talents of the Court’s production and creative teams, from costuming and props, to AV and sound design. The beautiful, grotty multi-level set takes up the Court’s massive stage. Graffiti and posters cover the walls of the auditorium, spilling down the staircases past rubbish and sleeping bags into the foyer, so that you have the immersive sense of entering a busted up warehouse building (within an already slightly busted up warehouse building). The lighting design also works to carefully draw the eye across multiple lines of action.

We only get a glimpse of MD Marrett and band, set deeper into the set, though there’s still a tangible sense of connection between them and performers, especially during scenes where Roger’s at war with his guitar. But even for a rock musical the performances are so full throttle, and sound mix so loud and in your face, that in places (especially very busy scenes) some lyrics are muddied. If you didn’t already know the show, some plot points in the second act might elude you.  More tender moments, such as the company’s gentle approach to “Will I?”, become a welcome shift in range.

I come with a companion who is very fond of Rent. She gives it her seal of approval, praising particularly the characterisation of Mimi and Joanne, who aren’t always rendered with as much depth and nuance. I’m agnostic: I think Larson’s musical itself is pretty uneven and in parts dated, but when it’s good it’s absolutely terrific. This production in particular is shot through with a sense of quicksilver urgency that attempts to offset some of the material’s weaknesses. It’s an important act of memorialisation, and it keeps queer stories and histories front and centre. I am also left thinking about what Rent, an American show written in a particular time and place, with a specific community responding to an existential crisis, might mean or be in New Zealand in 2022; it’s a question I think needs to be posed about a lot of American work staged here. HIV is no longer a death sentence, so the show’s sense of hope takes on a new cast. And yet, we remain inside a very different pandemic that the majority of the population is now complacent about. (FYI: if you want to attend an event where the audience chooses to get masked up, this is not for you).

Rent is a period piece now, an earnest classic of contemporary musical theatre, with its own devoted intergenerational fan base. I can see how much this show with its message of love and community will appeal to both established patrons who remember their own starry-eyed idealism (and the forms of then-contemporaneous rock the musical riffs on), and the sorts of keen theatre kids who might become the next generation of theatre supporters. The performance on opening night deserves its standing ovation, and hopefully the audience will make its way back to the theatre.

Rent runs until 21 January 2023.

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