The rock musical RENT is somewhat of a cult classic for theatre lovers, having had an impressive 12 year run on Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as numerous Tony awards. The St Catz Drama Society may have taken on a challenge by choosing it as their inaugural musical, but if the opening performance is anything to go by, their hard work has paid off.
Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème and set in New York’s East Village in the mid-90s, RENT follows a small group of young creatives as they battle the effects of addiction, gentrification and AIDS. Despite more recently being considered as outdated – and in particular criticised for romanticising the harsh reality of urban poverty – the play is explicit in uncovering the reality of issues such as homelessness and drug use, and in addressing taboos surrounding sexuality and disease. Its bold defence of “La Vie Bohème” requires a cast that is both energetic and assured, but performances all round definitely delivered. Peter Todd provides a bold opening as Mark and continues to carry his numbers with strong vocals and all the feverish liveliness of a twenty-something New Yorker “at the end of the millennium”. Patrick Cole is emphatic as Roger, capturing earnestly the desperation and uncertainty of a young man facing the prospect of a new relationship while still processing loss and his recent AIDS diagnosis. Lucy Jones shines in the role of Mimi, with equal measures of feistiness and steadiness in her vocals; I also welcomed solos by Jack Whitney, who brings to the character of teacher and anarchist Tom Collins a gentleness that painfully draws out his later grief.
Perhaps the standout performance can be afforded to Alex Waldman, whose charisma and superb range helped him to flourish as the powerhouse street musician and drag queen Angel. Such strong stage presence and vocal ability is at times what carried the show along, as original creator Jonathan Larson – after dying unexpectedly the night before the musical’s first off-Broadway performance in 1966 – admittedly does not provide a huge amount in the way of plot. Act I provides introductions to the characters and their community but has little rolling action, and so the vitality of the cast was welcomed in lifting the pace. Act II’s opening number, the well-known “Seasons of Love”, was tender and coherent, while Roisin McCallion and Lydia Ciaccio tackled the notorious broadway hit ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ with confidence. Pete Lewis’ performance as Benny successfully commanded the difficult power dynamic created by his character, once a roommate of Mark and Roger before marrying into a wealthy family and becoming their landlord. As it comes to a close, this musical reminds its audience of the possibility of finding a family and a voice in the face of change.
With its spirited rock numbers and sincere, engaging characters, RENT remains heartfelt and enjoyable. Sophisticated staging (granted by a lecture theatre being transformed into a fully-functional performance space) and the exuberance of its cast makes the Catz Drama Society’s rendition of this musical lively, poignant, and worth a watch.
RENT is showing at the Bernard Sunley Lecture Theatre in St Catherine’s College until 7th March.
Image credit: Callum John