When it comes to musicals the calibre of RENT, the allowed margin of error is miniscule, especially in a year celebrating the 20th anniversary of such a vibrant production.
As someone who truly loves RENT, the current staging at the Artscape Theatre has left me somewhat underwhelmed and a little disappointed, following the media viewing, because of a combination of technical errors, casting and direction choices.
Just as a storyline recap for those new to the RENT fandom, originally a Broadway rock musical nod to Puccuni’s La Bohème (later taken to screen) it is set in 1990s New York, with the plot running from Christmas Eve to Christmas Eve. The original Tony Award-winning production was the creative vision of Jonathan Larson.
You first meet aspiring film maker, Mark, and his guitar playing roommate, Roger, who in turn introduces you to their group of friends and the social-economic struggles they face in this journey called life. Some of the standout characters are Mimi (fighting a drug addiction), Maureen (Mark’s ex-girlfriend, now dating lawyer Joanne) and Angel (street drummer, drag queen and partner of philosopher friend Tom Collins). Following the struggles they endure over the span 365 days, RENT features much loved musical anthems ‘La Vie Boheme’ and ‘Seasons of Love’.
The current production was billed as a musical that inspires “South Africans to embrace their differences”, yet they stuck to the original time-period and setting, namely New York, leaving one slightly baffled as to the South African inspiration context.
With such a very young cast too (most of them appeared to be recent theatre school graduates), I struggled to find it believable that the leads (as per the life experience of their characters) grasped the complexity of the sexuality, AIDS, drugs and poverty issues they were singing about. One specific moment during the media viewing that made me question this connection was the death scene of Angel. I fear that someone who has never seen RENT before may walk out slightly perplexed as to the cause of Angel’s death, which is in fact a very important commentary on the impact of AIDS not only on Angel but also her ‘family’. This link is however never made. The focus seemed to fall more on the romanticization of the relationships than the issues at the heart of the ‘family’ connection. A connected conundrum was also why a performer of the stature of Maya Spector would then be cast as ensemble only, when she can out-sing any of the leads, plus add the gravitas of emotional maturity required by such an iconic musical commentary.
If one views this current staging of RENT as a pro-am production, I would say it has heart and applaud the cast and production team for bravely taking on the mammoth task of such a huge project. However, if you see it as a professional production (which the ticket price of R295 alludes to), one expects the performers to be pitch perfect at least 99% of the time, the technical glitches to be minimum and the nostalgic element as well as the powerful message underlying the score to be greatly respected.
Unfortunately, on media night, the sound balance was clearly out, the microphones on the fritz, and glitches such as a piano playing guitar frequent. On that note it must be said, fighting such tech demons can’t be easy for any performer, so hats-off to them for smiling and keeping on keeping on regardless of having to project their voices more than anticipated in the intimate setting of the Artscape Arena. Sadly though, that meant that their dialogue (whether spoken or sung) was rarely audible, and I was sitting in the second row. Personally, I think the production would benefit greatly from the assistance of a seasoned sound engineer to address such distracting kinks.
I must applaud the ensemble, they truly put heart and soul into ‘Seasons of Love’ and collectively were the stars of the show. As far as the leads are concerned, I will be keeping an eye out for future performances by Namisa Mdlalose. She has a strong, impressive voice. With further direction and guidance as to how to bring more depth to her voice in between belting numbers, she can truly become an exceptional performer.
Also special mention has to be made of the great lighting design by Faheem Bardien, which added a professional touch to the feel of the production, giving great artistic dimension to the sometimes creaky scaffolding of the Mark and Rory set loft apartment.
All in all, I think the show and the production company has real growth potential. I would however just like them to crawl and cautiously walk before they try and sprint when it comes to musical theatre. Let’s be honest, there is great quality competition in the R200 plus ticket price bracket, especially in a musical loving city like Cape Town. To paraphrase one of my theatre friends on the night, the RENT is a bit steep.
RENT runs at the Artscape Arena until 25 February 2017, with tickets available at Computicket.