RENT (2007) – Review Roundup

A roundup of reviews for the 2007 production of RENT in South Africa.

Artslink – Christina Kennedy (20 July 2007)

I’m not sure if it’s a similar phenomenon in the States, but after the opening night of the musical Rent I realised with a jolt that it’s a show that South African audiences will either love or hate.

Yes, it’s a Broadway hit. Yes, it features fabulous music. But some people seem to be put off by its loud rock sensibility, while others consider it a gratuitous anti-establishment parade of gays, lesbians, bums, junkies and HIV-positive people. Some just regard it as an incoherent muddle.

For my part, I loved it.

Rent is widely credited with bringing musical theatre to a new generation in the mid-‘90s, and I was totally captivated by its sensational music, flawed characters and edgy setting. The funky rock soundtrack is an absolute killer, with songs that will stick in your head for days afterwards.

Based on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, it focuses on a group of poverty-stricken bohemians grappling with hardship, stillborn dreams and disease on New York City’s East Village.

Make no mistake: this is certainly no pretty, squeaky-clean, peaches-and-cream musical – it shows the seedy, dingy side of life, no warts concealed. But Jonathan Larson’s rock opera also shows how compassion and humanity manage to survive in even the bleakest of circumstances.

More importantly, it provides a showcase for some of South Africa’s most exciting young talents. Key among these is Shaun V, who proves that not only can he win a People Magazine Crystal Award for popularity, but he can earn it as well. With a voice to break your heart and prod your tear ducts, he proves that he can act as well as sing, in the lead role of Roger, the frustrated and angry musician. What a biscuit – this boytjie just knocks everyone’s socks off.

Aubrey Poo is also a total dreamboat in this show. Playing vastly different characters in Soweto Story and Rent (as Tom Collins), this wonderful young man has the ability to enchant an audience with his presence and his exquisite voice.

Then there’s Mimi, the exotic dancer played by Talia Kodesh. This dynamic lass stole the show in We Will Rock You last year, but in the Rent performance I attended her voice was often forced and shouty, lacking subtlety. Ilse Klink is in fine fettle as lesbian lawyer Joanne Jefferson, but in the female stakes it’s really Sivan Raphaely as bisexual performance artist Maureen Johnson who blows you away. This actress has definitely blossomed in confidence, and her rendition of the allegorical poem protesting their eviction is world-class.

I was also impressed by Duane Alexander (fitting surname, given the theatre he’s performing in) as Mark Cohen, the role originally created by American director Anthony Rapp on Broadway, and by Zane Gillion as the optimistic but tragic Angel.

Rapp has done a great job with this show, aided by the likes of company manager/choreographer Jill Somers, musical director Bryan Schimmel (who fronts a five-piece band on stage, in full view of the audience) and a great supporting company.

The show puts a human face on poverty, Aids and general despair – issues that most of us, whether we live in Joburg or New York, tend to conveniently ignore. But Rent is by no means a voyeuristic freak show of how the “other half” lives – these are very real, genuine people trying to get by and experience a sense of love and community, no matter how fleeting.

The content may be bleak, but the show is vibrant and optimistic, epitomised by the “no day but today” refrain, exhorting people to live for the moment instead of succumbing to despair. It is moving as well as uplifting.

This production’s main flaw, which will hopefully be sorted out soon, is that many of the lyrics are drowned out by the music. I’m not sure if this is a sound problem or a side-effect of the rock sensibility of the show, but in a musical where most of the dialogue is sung, being unable to decipher the words can impact on one’s understanding of the plot and consequently one’s enjoyment of the show.

The renovated Alexander is a beautiful, cosy venue that feels like a bona fide traditional theatre, and is the perfect setting for this landmark musical. May both of them enjoy many seasons of love.

Tonight (IOL) – Diane de Beer (20 July 2007)

Rating: ****

If anyone thought that with so many musicals staged all over (three huge productions in Gauteng alone, with more coming up), we would not have enough talent, go and check Rent.

You might recognise a few of the faces, but many of the cast are doing their first big musical roles.

To do that in a show as tough as Rent, musically and structurally, is quite a feat. To pull it off so sweetly and with such sass is quite extraordinary.

Director Anthony Rapp, the original Mark Cohen in the Broadway production, has worked hard to draw this show together. The talent is there and while this is a young cast, it’s a brilliant move by producer, Hazel Feldman, to bring in someone who has lived the musical from the beginning.

If you’re thinking of the movie, don’t. The musical is a much tighter and in-your-face show as a group of young adults trying to get their lives on track – their way. “What’s it about? Connection in an isolated world,” say the lyrics of one of the most potent songs.

Benny is married to Alison Grey of Wesport, who helped him buy the building in which he lived together with Mark and Roger previously. He also used to date Mimi, who’s fallen for Roger, while his ex-roommate, Tom Collins, lost his heart to the beautiful Angel, a vivacious drag queen with Aids. Maureen, Mark’s ex, is now involved with Joanne, who becomes quite chummy with Mark. And, Benny wants to chuck them all out on the street.

But don’t let the details confuse you. Based on Bizet’s La Boheme, the story is about a group of diverse youngsters, re-presenting many of life’s outcasts, trying to break out in New York – without selling out. “How life flies when compassion dies,” says another devastating lyric.

The cast fare well and standout performances include Shaun V’s Roger. His is a strong role which could make or break the show and, with a stunning voice, he pulls it off. No surprise that Duane Alexander is so polished as Mark Cohen. He had the master to teach him, but he still had to get on stage and do it solo. His performance feels as if it comes from the Broadway stage. Sivan Raphaely has attitude galore, and quite a voice, and she needs it to sing a duet with the sublime Ilse Klink. Aubrey Poo and Zane Gillion both have stunning moments with some extraordinary singing by Nobuntu Mpahlaza.

Packed with sturm and drang, it’s nevertheless an exuberant musical with wonderful music and dense lyrics, but they grab the attention. One is tempted to return just to relive the glorious music.

Rent caused a huge stir in New York 10 years ago and it should do similar stuff here. It’s young and vibrant, rewrites the rules of what to expect from a musical, or in this case rock opera, and showcases some truly exciting performances.

Mamba Online – Luiz DeBarros (22 July 2007)

I first saw Rent in its 2005 film incarnation, directed by Chris Columbus. It’s an experience I wouldn’t want to repeat any time soon. The film was a mess; a weak storyline populated by unbelievable and annoying characters. I wondered at the time if the film indicated what I could expect from the stage play.

Last week, after 11 years of hearing and reading about the theatrical version of Rent, the show finally made its debut on a South African stage; directed by one of the original New York cast members (Anthony Rapp). It’s opened at the newly refurbished Alexander Theatre, which had been previously mothballed, in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

What became immediately clear is that the musical works a treat in the theatre. Columbus made the surprisingly amateurish mistake of attempting to replicate the stage version within the film medium. His loving faithfulness to his source is at the root of the film’s failure.

A number of the show’s songs really come to life on stage – they were crafted for maximum impact here. I dare anyone not to get goose-bumps when the cast breaks out into Seasons of Love or be swept away by the energy of La Vie Boheme. There are some wonderfully crafted pieces in this musical. The arrangements, overseen by Musical Director Bryan Schimmel, are often quite brilliant.

This is not to say that Rent the musical itself is without flaws. The first act is relatively well paced, but the second half is rushed, sketchy and covers a much longer period of time – to its detriment. The exuberance of the piece, however, manages to mask many of these narrative shortfalls.

Rent tells the story of a group of young friends living in an abandoned New York building trying to make ends meet while reaching for their dreams. It’s refreshing to experience a Broadway musical that is not only about sweeping fairy-tale romantic themes, but features lesbian and gay couples, the subjects of drug addiction and AIDS and even the word fuck. It’s not groundbreaking or revelatory in any real sense, but Rent is about as gritty and radical as Broadway gets.

It is sung from start to finish, which can make following the storyline a little difficult. This requires a balance between the demands of the melody and the need to ensure that the audience understands what is being said.

In this area, a number of the South African cast members struggle. They are required to accomplish this already testing speak-singing, but with the added burden of maintaining an American accent. For those in the cast for whom English is not their first language, the challenge is even greater. Then again, with the growing number of American-set musicals flooding our stages I won’t be surprised if our acting fraternity will soon be permanently americanised in their speaking.

Sadly, the most obvious weakness in this production of Rent is indeed in its performances. A musical like this one lives and dies on the basis of the vocal ability of its cast, and in this regard the production displays an uneven ensemble.

The standout members include Shaun V, as Roger Davis, whose singing dismisses any concerns about an otherwise slightly one-note performance. His voice is soulful and moving – able to bring the audience to tears. Aubrey Poo as Tom Collins also impresses with his impassioned singing, as does the always gutsy voice of Ilse Klink (seen recently in Menopause) in the role of Joanne Jefferson. Zane Gillion may not have the most powerful of vocal chords, but they are perfect for the role of Angel, and his performance is a blast.

On the opposite end of the spectrum Tali Kodesh lets the production down. She simply doesn’t have the spunky presence or the vocal prowess required for the role of femme fatale Mimi Marquez, and she was at times grindingly off-key and screechy. It may have been first night jitters, but she appears to have been a significant casting miss-step. Sivan Raphaely (Maureen Johnson) and Duane Alexander (Mark Cohen) are generally competent with occasional strong moments.

An actor friend of mine recently expressed the opinion that we simply don’t have enough quality performers to sustain the current boom of big-budget stage musicals. I don’t know if this is indeed the case, but if so, we should then not be staging them. When people put down their money for a show with a considerable international reputation, they should rightly expect international standard performances.

That said, Rent is often a remarkable production, worth seeing for its highlights, not avoiding because of its low-points. When Rent reaches its highs, it will entertain and move you deeply. Concerns that it may have dated since its 90’s origin are largely unfounded; if ever there has been the need to celebrate a little of ‘La Vie Boheme’, it is in these times of unchallenging big-budget theatre spectacle.

Here’s to, “Bisexuals, trisexuals, homo sapiens, carcinogens, hallucinogens, men, Pee Wee Herman, German wine, turpentine, Gertrude Stein, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Kurosawa, Carmina Burana…”

Sunday Times – Gwen Gill (22 July 2007)

THEATRE is coming out of Jozi culture vultures’ ears right now and the latest offering was the waiting-with-bated-breath gala opening of Broadway hit musical Rent. The usual theatre-groupie suspects were invited to the launch at the Alexander Theatre on Tuesday and, really, it’s time the close-knit drama fraternity broadened its guest list to create better word of mouth.

If people saw that, say, AB de Villiers, The Parlotones, Cyril Ramaphosa and a few rugby players and pop idols were keen theatregoers, they might rock up to copy their role
models. Sermon over!

Actually, there was one “pop idol” in the audience — sort of. I enjoyed chatting to Coca-
Cola Popstars judge Anthony Morgan, Lebo M’s partner in The Lion King. He escorted
one of the most glamorous audience members, his all-in-white girlfriend, Jolene Martin, presenter of TV’s Curious Culture. They marry in January.

The first person I bumped into was producer Hazel Feldman, who is either on something really good or has had a face-lift. She was with Rent‘s director, Anthony Rapp, who’d starred in the opening show in New York in 1996 and was flying back to the US the next day.

Other guests included PJ Powers, Carte Blanche’s cuddly Bongani Bingwa, Paul Ditchfield (still Batting on), Lizz Meiring, Carlo and Kim McFarlane and the lovely Tobie Cronjé – the first time I’ve seen him out since the untimely death of his equally lovely life partner, showbiz journalist William Pretorius, from a heart attack a couple of weeks before Bill Flynn.

Then there was Tselane Tambo, who’s one of the few schlebs to suss that the paps
will take your piccie if you wear colour (a red wrap in her case), and pretty Samantha
Peo who tells me Chicago is coming back in January.

Also spotted a really shiny lady. Karen Hackner, wife of Investec’s Sam Hacknew (Investec was a sponsor), was in fabric bling de luxe – a gold jacket and silver knee-high boots. Seriously OTT.

Do you want the good news or the bad news about the show first?

I’ll go for good – even great, in places – particularly the reopening after a decade of mothballs of the Alexander Theatre by young Adam Levy in (almost downtown) Braamies, and the thrill of feeling like a normal society as punters spilled out onto the street for pre-show drinks (shut up all the pessimists who muttered ‘drive-by’). And the awesome courage of Feldman in putting on Rent in the first place. You’ve got to have a ton of chutzpah to launch a musical that has no star, only one vaguely familiar song and a story line that probably doesn’t appeal to the usual Jozi theatre-going demographic – all this in a previously disadvantaged suburb.

Add to this that it’s basically “Friends — The Musical”, with Aids, drugs, prostitution and homosexuality thrown in, plus great voices (especially leads Duane Alexander and Shaun V), set in a New York loft and is almost entirely sung rather than spoken. To put it mildly, you’ve got something vastly different from the theatre usually available in Gauteng (apart from at The Market).

Now the bad news. You couldn’t hear what was being sung and you wondered if there was a plot or what.

I feared my ears were deceiving me, but photographer Max Berg, PJ, theatre producer Maralin van Reenen and others also had hearing problems.

There seemed to be a lot of family in the house, judging by the way some individual performances were cheered well beyond their quality, and the standing ovation was hardly merited either.

Nice snacks after, not so the red wine – my photographer wonders if Joburg venues are having a contest to see who can serve the worst.

But it was not a happy crowd. Most seemed to be wondering how they could spread an encouraging word about a show they didn’t understand.

My advice to punters: pray the Alex has the sound system sorted by the time you book
and read the story line in the programme before you go in. Then perhaps you won’t be as bewildered as I was.

Represent (27 August 2007)

Seems like RENT at the recently refurbished Alexandra Theatre in Braamies has been extended an extra month – till the end of October – lucky Jozi peeps – make sure NOT to miss out on a fabulous show and if you’re in CT – get booking.  John caught the show:

Wow! I felt like a pirate finding buried treasure! The Alexandra theatre was recently renovated and re-opened and what a gem. The place is beautiful, situated in  Braamfontein,  and reminded me of the golden days of theatre in Johannesburg.

It has a different feel than the Market and a fabulously big theatre and new bar.
Enough about the venue! RENT was fabulous! The cast is young and full of energy. It had some familiar faces like Ilse Klink (Isidingo – who knew she could sing this well??) and Aubrey Poo (Muvhango). The pace is fast and energetic and the vocals are strong and solid.

The story revolves around a group of friends living in a rundown building in New York during the eighties. One of their friends inherits a lot of dough and wants to turn the building into a cyber studio (what ever that is…) and wants to throw them out – they cannot pay their rent (hence the name). The tenants owe rent for the previous year and struggle to eat – the place is cold and damp – everyone is trying to make it in entertainment, tv, music and the like.
The piece had two sections making it quite a long play – almost three hours – but it is well worth it. The songs ranged from deep and touching to beautifully crafted vocals, to outright fun and games. The story is more complicated than the usual political piece or pantomime – but left us sad at times – I even developed a bit of a flu nose at one point – and laughed out loud at other times.

This production is big – the set is beautiful and sports a corner where a five piece band sits producing all the music “live” for the show. What a band! The sound was brilliant allowing the musician’s talents to shine. Music director Bryan Schimmel impressed with some stunning music from which looked like a young band. The dance sequences were good as well with some filling the complete stage with cast members.

The cast is big – the main characters make up about half and the rest are street people. The whole thing is done in “American” which turned out much better than I expected.

This is quality stuff. Everyone will find something here. I wish we had more professional productions like this.

Go watch it! You’ll miss out if you don’t.

Extracts from Further Reviews

‘What a treat to see a production of this caliber, presented on our very own Braamfontein Broadway.’ – Sabrina Dean, The Citizen

‘Standing ovation for Rent… Don’t miss this chance to see a world class production on your doorstep.’ – Gavin Hayward, Exit Magazine

‘Our relationship with the characters of RENT can only truly come into being if a cast with just the right amount of energy and emotion, to make their personas really sparkle, performs it. Not only does this particular cast possess these crucial elements in spades, they also complement each other in a manner, which beautifully recreates the touching camaraderie of these characters.’ – Adam J Levin, The Writing Studio

Rent is a showstopper that will lift your spirits and raise your energy levels because of its sizzlingly slick performances and stunning music.’ – Robyn Sassen, The Jewish Report.

Return to the RENT (2007) production page.

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