It cannot be denied that the world of Musical Theatre lost a rising star when Jonathan Larsson passed away shortly after completing Rent. He brought a fresh voice to a jaded Broadway. We will never know how he would have developed the score in the light of audience and critical reaction. On the evidence of this, the first student production of Rent to hit the Oxford stage, there are a number of narrative and structural flaws that stop it from being a totally successful work. Audience members are left unclear of character, situation and key plot details and so it is hard to fully engage with the retelling of the La Boheme story.
However, it is not my job to critique the piece – but rather to address how the production team and cast engage with the source material and bring it to life for the audience.
One of the strengths of the show is the contemporary score – this is ably played by the small ensemble. The evening is held together by the confident musical direction of Nick Pritchard. There are severe issues with the sound balance with the majority of lyrics being lost in the mix and a number of smaller roles being inaudible due to a lack of microphones. It is clear that a lot of attention to detail has been paid to the musical preparation – it is just a shame that a lot of that is obscured by turning the volume to 11 rather too frequently.
There are a couple of outstanding performances from the principals – James Carroll as Mark is central to the success of the evening with a strong vocal and sensitive approach to his acting. Ed Pearce (Joanne) shines throughout – a triple threat (to use the term now familiar to all viewers of BBC casting shows). Elsewhere the quality of the principals is rather patchy: there is a lack of passion in some of the onstage relationships which is rather disappointing in a piece all about the power of love.
Some of the smaller roles are taken with great panache – often eclipsing some of the more prominent characters. It is good to see talent in the chorus – but it does make me wonder whether some might have been better suited to the larger roles.
Overall it is a production with a number of positives and it may grow in confidence as the short run progresses. There is a wonderful energy with the final rendition of the iconic ‘Seasons of Love’ – they would be well-advised to bring this spirit to the show from the start. All in all, a good - if somewhat clean and polite - attempt at a piece widely regarded as a modern classic.