Award-winning Rock Musical, RENT, returns to the South African stage in a vibrant 20th anniversary production in Cape Town 16 – 25 February at Artscape and Johannesburg 28 April – 07 May at Joburg Theatre. The original rock musical, composed by Jonathan Larson in 1996, was a Pulitzer Prize and Tony-Award winning masterpiece that changed the landscape of musical theatre. Previously featuring well-known actors such as Neil Patrick Harris, Rosario Dawson and Taye Diggs in various Broadway adaptations, including the 2005 feature film, the show has enjoyed on-going success with diehard fans being dubbed ‘RENT-heads.’ Inspired by Puccini’s classic opera La bohème, RENT tackles issues of homelessness, homosexuality, drug addiction and HIV and Aids.
Director, Byron Bure, highlights the significance of these issues, particularly in a South African context, as they are still very relevant today “Every day we see the divisive effects of nativism and intolerance which ends up in violent conflict between different communities. The story of RENT may be specific to the artists in New York`s Bohemian East Village in the early 1990s, but the theme of a community in crises and how they struggle to deal with it still resonates today.” Bure stresses the importance of addressing these issues through art and performance wherever possible. “As South-Africans we often see the impulse to turn against one another when threatened by these external forces. RENT challenges us to turn towards one another to weather a storm and to choose love and respect. In our fractured society, this is a message that desperately needs to be heard.”
While setting the bohemian scene, much like in the original, Bure’s production will focus on the group dynamics of the characters.
“We spent a great deal of time analysing the characters and their needs within the piece, which informed how we were going to construct a production that best serves Jonathan Larson’s vision. We set about finding actors that could embody the characters both physically and vocally.” The cast consists of young professional artists making their break into the industry, much like those of their characters.
RENT producer, Stephan Fourie of The Stephan Fourie Theatre Company, believes in providing the platform for young South African talent to grow. “I’m so excited about this cast, they have an amazing energy and hunger to bring everything they have to these characters. The roles are extremely demanding both physically and vocally; the performers sing, dance and act, and we have been fortunate to find such a skilled group of young talent to bring this together.”
The cast members include award-winning Theatre and Performance graduates from the University of Cape Town and the Waterfront Theatre School, technically trained across musical theatre, acting, singing, dance and choreography. Classical and contemporary singer and recipient of an invitation to audition for Juilliard Performing Arts School in 2012, Namisa Mdlalose (23) who plays the role of the brooding ‘Joanne’ says, ‘I could not have asked for a better experience. Being part of the RENT family, which is what we have become, has been challenging, but uplifting. I think RENT will never cease to be relevant. It tells a story of a community of broken people begging to be loved, to be forgiven, to be seen, to be healed. Ultimately, we find, love wins.”
Making his first musical theatre debut, Anzio September, who plays ‘Angel’ echoes Mdlalose’s sentiments on the shows significance. ‘Besides themes about love and dignity, the musical deals with even darker issues which the youth today face - AIDS, drug addiction, and suicide.
Taking on the task of the music itself is no small feat. RENT set the bar for rock musicals 20 years ago, quickly becoming the best-selling cast album of the decade. The musical score is technically a challenging one since it is a completely sung-through production. Musical director, Jaco Griessel directs the vocal performance of the cast as well as the five-piece band consisting of a pianist, a guitarist, a guitarist doubling up on keyboard, a bassist and a drummer. Rooted in rebellion and protest, the show is a blend of soulful gospel, grungy rock and pop. Bure explains that the music is well- written but that it’s the place of the lyrics in the narrative that imbues them with relevance. He describes the real magic of the show as the hybrid of 80’s and 90’s rock combined with the unique sounds of contemporary musical theatre.
“My hope for this production is that audiences will leave with a sense of compassion for the characters, and a broader view of different communities. Without the support of fellow beings, issues that should be easily resolved, are made incredibly difficult to overcome. We need to approach differences with love and understanding to create a consciousness for change, and that’s what RENT is all about” says Bure.
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