REVIEW / THEATRE
Pangdemonium!/Drama Centre Last Saturday
A sage once said that real success is about being able to live as you please.
But as life is a series of trade-offs, the late American composer Jonathan Larson asked in his breakthrough punk-rock musical Rent: What is the price of such success?
BOOK IT /RENT
WHERE: Drama Centre, Level 3 National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street
WHEN: Till Oct 23, 7.30pm (Tuesday to Friday), 2.30 and 7.30pm(Saturday), 2.30pm (Sunday), Oct 23, 2.30and 7.30pm
ADMISSION: $30to $95 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555). Rent is rated R18 but will admit those older than 16 on Oct 12, 15, 19 and 22
In two acts, Rent chronicles a year in the life of a group of artists in New York's ratty East Village in the late 1980s or early 1990s. They are struggling to pay last year's rent - and are rent asunder by their urges, whims and fancies, as well as by their fat cat nemeses, who are always itching to evict them.
In between refrains such as "Dying in America/At the end of the millennium", this ragtag bag of characters are reduced to counting matches, rewiring ATMs to spit out money and being forever confused and flatfooted by hunger, anger and their attractions to one another.
All this is caught on camera by wise-cracking film-maker Mark Cohen, played slickly by Benjamin Chow.
Then, a death at Halloween leads all to confront hard truths. What is the price of success if it means being holed up in a godforsaken commune where panhandlers, drug pushers and cockroaches skittle by?
As a boy, Larson had been fascinated by puppet shows of Giacomo Puccini's 1896 opera La Boheme, in which dilettantes scrape by on Paris' Left Bank. But it was only in the 1990s, when he met Billy Aronson, who became his co-lyricist on Rent, that he was sold on Aronson's idea of reimagining La Boheme in gritty New York.
Mop-topped Larson died aged 35 on Jan 25, 1996, when the main artery in his brain burst. He never saw his show's off-Broadway premiere, which was set for a day later on Jan 26. Rent eventually won the Tony Award for Best Musical, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a clutch of other accolades.
For this reviewer, the music has never been the work's strongest suit. Larson had, with guidance from his mentor, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, tried to make his mark on Broadway by marrying his libretto with punk-rock and pop. But his experiment yielded a largely ho-hum score.
Nevertheless, the 17 actors in this third incarnation of Rent in Singapore were consistently excellent, their unforced camaraderie and toasty harmonising bursting with joy.
But it would be remiss not to single out the evening's five standout performances.
Tabitha Nauser, as Aids-stricken erotic dancer Mimi Marquez, gave a finely nuanced portrayal that made her fickle, flippant character warm and winning from the start. She also stunned the audience with sheer vocal power.
As Maureen Johnson, the performance artist and anti-capitalist protester, Mina Kaye delighted as the night's main comic element. She never overplayed her hand, letting her rich, polished vocals speak volumes.
Frances Lee, as human rights lawyer Joanne Jefferson, lent authentic bustle with her brief, but very effective, appearances, including in the sizzling number Tango Maureen.
Aaron Khaled, as drag queen drummer Angel Dumott Schunard, captured the audience's heart from the get-go as the fearless, giving soul. His bravura turn as a bopping, twirling Santarina stopped time.
Juan Jackson, as weary tech wizard Tom Collins, had a voice like shirred cream and a plaintive demeanour, which invested Larson's lines such as "cutting-room floor of memories" and "Why does distance make us wise?" with great poignancy.
Tracie Pang's acutely judged direction enabled everyone in her cast to flesh out their respective roles clearly and believably. Also, choreographer Andy Benjamin Cai's deft, simple moves conveyed so much with very little. So, amid the dour, dank clutter of the set, grace flowed forth.
Twenty years after Larson's death, as the gulf between rich and poor widens further, Rent resonates stronger than ever.
Pang's husband, actor Adrian Pang, who has a cameo in a Last Supper-like scene, said to the audience at the end of the curtain call: "With the world going down the toilet very quickly, Rent is truly a reminder that life is precious. Love will win. Love has to win. We will kick hatred's a**."