Venue: Central Hall
Thanks to Team America, many York students watching Rent this weekend will go into Central Hall thinking that they’re going to see the musical where Everyone Has Aids. It’s true that tackling a serious subject in the form of a musical comes with many risks. You have to suspend your disbelief slightly when, in West Side Story, street gangs mix fighting with ballet moves, and the whole concept of the Sound of Music is potentially distasteful.
The reason why Rent works so well in the theatre is that it perseveres in spite of (whilst being totally aware of) the limitations of its genre. The staging is difficult and the script is full of rich detail: sometimes, if you miss a line, a plot-strand or character’s back-story you will be completely lost. It’s an ambitious choice for the Central Hall Musical Society to have made, and the cast and crew have every reason to be proud of what they’ve achieved. They’ve captured and communicated the piece’s essence clearly, and the performance makes for a very entertaining evening.
Rent focuses on a group of characters living in New York City. Most of them are poor, bohemian artist-figures. The story is in a sense narrated by Mark, a documentary filmmaker, who introduces the audience to his flatmate, the HIV-positive singer-songwriter Roger, and their friend Tom Collins, an academic and anarchist. The latter two characters become involved in relationships with two dancers who, like them, are living with AIDS: Angel, a drag-queen and street percussionist, and Mimi, a club dancer and drug addict. The other main characters, caught up in love triangles with either Mark or Roger, are the yuppie landlord Benny, the protest performer Maureen and the lawyer Joanne.
Jonathan Larson’s work has its origins in Puccini’s opera La Bohème, and whilst it involves a lot of dancing, Rent doesn’t normally have dance numbers, as such. The employment of a much larger cast and dance corps by CHMS is a fairly ambitious addition to the script, yet understandable considering a musical like this can only be put on in York once a year. Along with the band, the choreography felt like the most professional and well-rehearsed element of the show and the staging of certain dance routines worked brilliantly: it was vital to a song like ‘Contact’ and cleverly evocative in ‘Tango: Maureen’.
However at the same time, the dancers reduced the extent to which Rent is a rock-opera, as well as a musical. Having crammed the stage with the whole cast in the opening number, scenes that followed featuring just a few of the protagonists felt weakened as a result. The real centrality of the eight Puccini characters didn’t become so clear until the second act, which, taking place over the course of a year doesn’t in itself have the energy or fluency of Act One, which happens in a single night.
The casting of those characters was nevertheless excellent. Sam McCormick and Laura Horton were extremely convincing as Mark and Maureen, but the performances of Josh Fisher and Tom Jones stood out the most, creating a believable dynamic between Angel and Collins. Standard Central Hall technical issues aside, the whole cast pulled off the difficult ‘Christmas Bells’ and the exciting ‘La Vie Bohème’.
Catch Rent while you still can – you have no day but today (and tomorrow) to see it.
Rent will be showing at Central Hall until Saturday 13th February.